AI Astrology

The Spiritual Landscape of the 21st Century is Taking a Sci-Fi Turn

Who do you trust more to tell your fortune: an old lady leaning over a crystal ball, or artificial intelligence?

That question may sound silly, but a surprising number of people in 2023 are taking it seriously.

In a March 2 essay entitled “The Return of the Magicians,” Ross Douthat argues that new developments in AI – along with the resurgent popularity of psychedelic experimentation and the search for extraterrestrial life – are part of a broader cultural trend. It is a return to the old tradition of summoning djinn, gods, or spirits to do our bidding; “the desire to encounter or invent some sort of nonhuman consciousness that might help us toward leaps that we can’t make on our own.” Despite the fact that AI is science-based, many pioneers in AI are treating it more like a religion. In the vision of some leading AI theorists, as summarized by Douthat:

The knowledge granted us by “generative AI” will be far more mysterious [than Enlightenment science]; its truth will need to be “justified by entirely different methods, and it may never become similarly absolute.” Their vision of the human-to-AI relationship evokes Delphic priestesses channeling Apollo or mediums reaching through the veil: “We will have to ask continuously: What about the machine has not yet been revealed to us? What obscure knowledge is it hiding?”

That seemed like a societal trend worth keeping an eye on, so I was interested to see a July 4 New York Times story on the new phenomenon of AI-powered astrology. Thanks to ChatGTP and other new chatbot technologies, users of new services such as “The Void” by Co-Star can ask the chatbot open-ended questions and receive highly personalized advice determined by the positions of the heavenly bodies at the user’s date, time, and place of birth.

Astrology (which, like SETI and psychedelics, is booming in popularity) has always succeeded by tapping into two powerful desires: the desire to (1) have the attention of (2) someone or something who has all the answers. The interesting thing is that AI may be able to create an illusion of that experience that is more convincing and enticing than what neo-pagan spirituality has been able to provide up to now.  

(1) A Message to Myself  

People like the idea of astrology because, at some level, everyone longs to hear the voice of God (or “the universe,” they might say) speaking directly to them. As singer-songwriter Roo Panes recently put it:

If I'd heard every word
Or read every line upon the shelf
I'd still need a message to myself

Astrology pretends to give you that divine and/or cosmic message. But before AI, there was always a limit. The old newspaper horoscopes could only be so personal. They inevitably prompted the question, Does everyone born under Virgo really share the same fortune this week? The problem with that idea is not that it strains the willing suspension of disbelief, although it does – it’s that it just doesn’t make you feel special enough. As one new algorithm-based astrology service (quoted in the Times article) says of the old way of doing astrology, “You’re one in 7 billion — not one in 12.”

And that’s where AI comes in. Co-Star bills itself as “hyper-personalized astrology,” because its AI technology can present you with a horoscope that seems like it’s made just for you – and not for the millions of other people with your Zodiac sign. You get everything you would get visiting an astrologer in-person – without the time, the expense, and the icky awkwardness of real human interaction.  

Of course, not everyone who uses astrology really believes in it, just as not everyone who has long personal conversations with chatbots believes there’s “something in there.” But don’t underestimate the power of the human ability to pretend. Watching a Rom-Com won’t cure your loneliness, but it will sedate it for a while. Likewise, an AI voice telling you pseudo-scientific-spiritual insights about your personal journey can be enough for a person who would rather have a make-believe meaning to life than no meaning at all.

AI Astrology is a quick fix, a low-cost, low-effort way to feel known, seen, and special. But the particular enticement of it goes even deeper than that.

(2) Someone With Answers

In The World’s Last Night, C.S. Lewis wrote that any time we learn what another person really thinks of us, for better or worse, we always either hope or fear deep down that their judgment may be mistaken. But when we meet God at the final Judgment, and are faced with his opinion of us, there will not be the slightest shred of either hope or fear that the assessment will be in error. We will know ourselves, finally.

The pretense of astrology is that the positioning of the heavenly bodies contain a knowledge of you that is deeper and less fallible than mere human judgment. So, the problem, then, is figuring out what the universe knows about you. A newspaper horoscope is based merely on your birth sign, so it can only tell you so much. An in-person astrologer can go deeper, and give results based on the extensive personal data you share.

But what if AI in the near future can seem to go even deeper? What if it can analyze far more data points about you, do astronomical calculation unfathomable to the human mind, speak with more authority than even the most credentialed astrologer?

Some people think we’re already there. While some established professional astrologers are trying to dismiss AI astrology as impersonal and inaccurate – “Machines make mistakes,” protests one famous astrologer – others already feel that people are more likely to make mistakes than machines. The Times article quotes one customer: “I’d be more inclined to believe that an old lady leaning over a crystal ball is lying to me than a computer.” People can lie or make mistakes – artificial intelligence will surely speak with truth.

If the current trends continue, AI-powered fortune-telling could become a substitute for the Voice of God to a generation of people who aren’t wild about the idea of waiting for the Final Judgment. The desire to feel fully known and fully loved runs deep in us, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to get that experience. Not even the best human relationships can give us that.   

AI Astrology can’t give us that, either. But it can give us the appearance of it. It can allow us to pretend. An increasing number of people are deciding that’s good enough.

The thing is, once you’ve decided to live as though you believe something, it’s surprisingly easy to actually start believing it. As the deception of AI omniscience grows more and more convincing, many more people may begin truly believing, and a new false religion for our era will be born.

Further Reading:

lives in Amman, Jordan, and has worked with asylum seekers and migrants from across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He has a B.S. in Ecology and a B.A. in History and enjoys playing mandolin and foraging.

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