Future Tense

“A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Robot Walk Into a Bar”

A new short story looks at how artificial intelligence could support, and distort, faith.

Franco Zacharzewski

Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for October–December 2019: artificial intelligence.

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“So a priest, a rabbi, and a robot walk into a bar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

David had heard this one before, but he needed a job. He folded his hands in his lap and summoned the patience he’d learned sitting through Talmudic debates. He waved for Aiden Shure, Town of Our Own’s CEO, to continue.

“It’s a dive bar, lots of rough language from the other patrons, but the bartender says, ‘Father, what can I get you?’ The priest says: ‘Well, I have to lead Mass in the morning, but a wee nip can’t hurt. Gimme three fingers of Irish whiskey and cut it with holy water.’ So the bartender runs over to the church next door, borrows a bit of holy water, and makes the drink. The priest is satisfied, so the bartender moves on: ‘Rabbi, what can I get you?’ The rabbi says, ‘Well it is the Sabbath day, but if it’s not too much work I wouldn’t say no to a glass of kosher wine from the vineyards of the Holy Land.’ So the bartender finds a bottle of sweet Israeli red, and the rabbi thanks him.”

Aiden told the joke like he’d practiced it a lot while stuck in traffic. David braced for the punchline he knew was coming.

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“So the bartender turns to the robot, which has been quietly listening to the other patrons. The bartender says: ‘Sorry for the wait. What can I get you?’ And the robot says, ‘Fuck you, kike-loving bitch—’ ”

“I think I know how the rest goes,” David interrupted. The joke was a modern-day Aristocrats, intentionally obscene, all the rage on streaming late-night shows. “I’m not super PC, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Aiden chuckled. “I’m actually describing the problem we’re hiring to solve. Our customer service chatbot keeps getting, well … anti-Semitic. We field complaints from many lonely, obsessive people. Towns often subscribe to our service to keep the whack jobs from bothering real municipal employees.” David winced at the ableist slur. “We want our system to learn from users, speak their language as we say, but now … ”

“Now the bot hates Jews. Aren’t there curation tools to fix that?”

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“They haven’t worked. We aren’t talking naughty words or bad attitude. It’s nice as ever. But if you turn on suggestions and let it follow ‘relateds’ down the rabbit hole, the bot starts generating some pretty weird text. Conspiracy stuff. Like if Mr. Rogers wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And we can’t just purge all references to Jewish culture—that’s erasure, right? So your LinkedIn jumped out at us.”

David had wondered why TOOO’s hiring bot had reached out to him so aggressively, even though he was a novice in the tech world. Now things clicked into place.

“Because I have rabbinical schooling, you think I can sort out the, uh, good Jewish stuff from the bad Jewish stuff?”

“Exactamundo!” Aiden missed David’s skepticism.

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“You don’t want me to do any product development?”

“Only what you need for this job. After, if we both think you culture fit, I’ll move you to an open desk. Deal?”

David suppressed a sigh. This wasn’t what he’d envisioned when he’d pledged to that coding boot camp—or taken out the loans to pay for it, compounding his debt. But the money was good. God would not want him to be choosey, he decided, especially when handed an opportunity to protect the chosen people.

“I’ll need a space for my books.”

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David rented a bike trailer and hauled his library across town in the sweat-stained Austin heat. He began combing through the training data—tedious, eye-blurring work, but weirdly fascinating. Anti-Semitism was insidious, old, and ever-changing. He compiled databases of anti-Semitic language using bots from watch groups that tracked trends in hateful rhetoric. To filter bad inputs, David had to give the A.I. the moral and historical context to know when a user was just ignorant, when they were being problematic, and when they might be truly dangerous. Much of that was a judgment call. Some Jews were quick to equate anti-Zionism and pro-Palestinian activism with anti-Semitism. David wasn’t sure he could make that call for all of Town of Our Own’s users, but where to draw the lines wasn’t so clear-cut.

The job was, he had to admit, a pretty good fit for his lumpy skill set. So good that he was surprised MBAiden, as his co-workers called the boorish CEO, had thought of it. David prodded SheaAnne the HR manager until she spilled that the idea of searching for someone with rabbinical training had come from Mark, TOOO’s pet intellectual.

“I can’t take all the credit,” Mark said when David tracked him down at a staff happy hour. “Aiden is pretty insecure about being such a biz-jock. The hippest A.I. founders have humanities degrees, but not him. So instead he likes to collect philosophical weirdos—like me. And now you.”

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“Still, thanks. I needed the gig.”

“I’m just glad to have a kindred spirit around here. Us clergy dropouts have to stick together.”

Indeed, David and Mark had a lot in common. Both were Northeasterners now trying to fit in in the Texas tech scene. David was from Westchester, outside New York, while Mark grew up in Boston and had the accent to prove it. Both came from families that had pushed them toward religious training. Mark’s pious Irish Catholic family had nearly disowned him when he’d left the priesthood path and instead gotten a Master of Theological Studies at an interfaith seminary in Chicago—a tacit admission that he’d become a “traitorous Proddy.” David’s Reform-but-kosher parents had been merely “worried and concerned” when he’d bailed after six years of rabbinical school—filled with theological doubts, and more pressing secular doubts about his ability to pay off his student loans.

“I did my thesis on the positions various faith groups were taking on A.I. Personhood, when life begins, Turing’s Fetus stuff,” Mark explained. “Ended up on a boring-as-hell South by Southwest panel here on A.I. ethics. I talked a lot of nonsense, but Aiden tracked me down at an after-party and offered me a job. Moved the next week.”

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“Sounds like a fairy tale romance.” David swirled the dregs of his Lone Star, which he was determined to learn to like.

“Hardly. TOOO sells municipal logistics A.I. Building interfaces for people to report potholes or check bulk trash pickup dates isn’t exactly the theological cutting edge. Anyway,” Mark did his best “Jewish mother cowboy” impersonation, “How’d a nice boy from Westchester end up in these here Silicon Hills?”

David laughed. “You know how they turn you away three times before letting you convert to Judaism? To become a rabbi, it’s more like 300. I mean, who has the stamina? My girlfriend got a job here and wanted to take it, so I blew up my life and came with.”

“Cheers to that,” Mark said. “Let it never be said that we godly men make things easy on ourselves.”

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David and Mark started to hang out on a regular basis, usually going to a bar after work where—blood alcohol permitting—they’d debate the finer points of Judeo-Christian theology, often until they were both blue with laughter. David was technical and articulate; when he joked, it was to cover up his sometimes-crippling introversion. Mark was provocative and cynical—David half-suspected Mark had gotten Aiden hooked on the rude robot bit—and loved the challenge of dragging David out of his shell.

When, after six months, David finally completed his anti-Semitism sweep, Mark took him out, as usual, for a celebratory drink.

“I’ve been thinking about your project,” Mark said. “I know Aiden hasn’t found you your next job yet, so I have a proposal.”

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“Not a modest one, I hope,” David said. “I may soon be living on the street, but don’t cannibalize me yet.”

“I could never rip off my beloved St. Jonathan! Look,” Mark got serious, “Until recently, the A.I. field was all about training algorithms, getting them to learn certain skills, like playing Go or spotting tumors. But what you did was more like grooming. It was about behavior and etiquette, the nuance of relating to human customers.”

“Plenty of malicious data I found just had to be purged,” David mused. “But I also flagged sensitive material the A.I. needed to understand precisely because it shouldn’t be talked about. I suppose you could call that etiquette—the art of knowing what not to say.”

“Right! And those grooming decisions are already getting made, but they’re ad hoc fixes to complaints or problems flagged by Quality Assurance being made platform by platform. Lots of reinventing the wheel. Seems to me we could offer a product that companies like TOOO could buy to keep their bots well-behaved.”

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“Like our own firm?”

“Why not? I bet TOOO would be our first client. I guarantee you they have more bot-havioral problems than you’ve fixed.”

David hadn’t been in the industry long enough to know if this idea was very savvy or very stupid. He nursed the artisanal vodka tonic Mark had bought him.

“What does it mean for an A.I. to be ‘well-behaved’?” he asked. “That’s a normative question with nooks and crannies.”

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“That’s exactly why we’re the perfect people to do this! We know how to ask the questions and how complicated the answers can get. The grooming sector, when it happens, is going to be full of people like us. Let’s get in while the getting’s good! And hey, maybe we can slip a few wholesome zingers in there.”

They set up a workspace in David’s apartment and brainstormed company names on a whiteboard. David’s girlfriend, Becca, who taught English at UT–Austin, would occasionally cross out names she didn’t like. She was happy to see David so enthusiastic, she said, but no way could she date the founder of Manners4Machines.

They settled on Decen.cy, snapping up a domain name from Cyprus. To David, the name seemed neutral, pleasant—just like they hoped A.I.s could be.

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The year that followed was exhausting, exhilarating, panic-inducing. Gone were the days when any tech startup with a bubbly logo could bump into $10 million in seed funding walking down the street. Before they could even ask for money, they had to painstakingly solicit letters of client interest, do pre-recruitment, scout office space—all while ramping down their work at TOOO.

MBAiden turned out to be one of their biggest boosters, even offering to invest himself. He liked to take credit for bringing Mark and David together. When Decen.cy launched, TOOO was its first official customer.

Other customers trickled in. Some were A.I. companies with niche bot-havioral problems, like TOOO’s conspiracy-peddling chatbot. Others brought weird dilemmas, like the therapy app that couldn’t decide if its tender-voiced A.I. should approve of yoga. If a user mentioned yoga, should the bot encourage the habit or temper expectations? Or would, as devil’s advocate Mark argued, a truly woke app call out yoga as a form of cultural appropriation? Decen.cy’s small staff often stayed late arguing about these sorts of issues, with debate sprawling into Dirty Bill’s, the dive bar down the block.

Many clients didn’t care much what decision Decen.cy came to, but shielded themselves with Decen.cy’s virtuous reputation. It was a game of appearances. David and Mark soon learned to emphasize their religious backgrounds. David came to business meetings in a dark suit, a yarmulke sticking out of his pocket. Mark based his attire off the comic book Preacher: white jeans, black shirt, white clerical collar. They had a good cop, bad cop dynamic. David played somber, pious, and authoritative. Mark put on the understanding air of one all too familiar—from personal experience—with the decadent sins of the modern world.

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Sometimes Mark kept the collar on after work, hit up a seedy club, went home with women who, he’d tell David, “had that hot priest itch to scratch.” But Mark never ended up with a girlfriend. David privately suspected Mark was staying free of entanglements because a part of him wanted to return to the cloth.

Mark was wearing the collar late in Decen.cy’s second year, when he introduced David to a walk-in. The Rev. Frank Teller wore a fine, Western-cut suit and spun a broad cowboy hat in his hands.

“Kind of you to ride all the way from Dallas to meet us,” Mark said, when they sat down together.

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“Well, I had business with Town of Our Own, and Aiden Shure told me you fellas could help me with my problem. You see, I’m blessed to be CEO of FireHaven Ministries. Perhaps you’ve seen our billboards or meme pages?”

David and Mark were indeed aware of the tech-savvy North Texas megachurch, which advertised heavily along I-35.

“God’s seen to it that we’ve grown in recent years, and we’ve acquired some real estate concerns. Intentional communities where our congregation members can live as neighbors in resisting the ills of the world. We use TOOO to manage them. My eldest just moved into our newest development, and she loves TOOO, calls it ‘so polite!’ Which brings me to why I’m down here. My little granddaughter Harmony was playing with TOOO’s voicebot—you know how kids are with these things—and she asked the bot if it would pray with her. You know what the bot said? ‘Praying isn’t for everyone, but reflection and mindfulness are important.’ So I’m wondering, who put those words in that bot’s mouth?”

“Probably our product grooming team.” David had feared the child had stumbled onto some stray speck of obscenity in the A.I.’s conversation trees, but this answer seemed innocuous. “We try to make A.I.s helpful without being pushy, sympathetic without making assumptions—so they’re accessible and inoffensive to everyone.”

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“See that’s exactly my concern. Who’s to say what’s inoffensive to everyone? This is a question of values. The values that say ‘prayer isn’t for everyone’ are the same secular, liberal, cosmopolitan values that get pushed on us by the universities, the media, the coastal elites. Exactly the influence my congregation is trying to escape. Now it’s coming from the official bot of their refuge. You see how that’s a problem?”

David bristled at “cosmopolitan” but held his tongue.

“We appreciate that perspective,” Mark demurred. “We know it’s hard, these days, to get away from conversational A.I.s. They regulate how we interact with our personal devices, our homes, private businesses, public spaces, not to mention government institutions. They’re inescapable, which is why we try to be thoughtful about the complexities—”

“I’m sure you do,” Teller interrupted. “And I like that. I like your brand. ‘Decency’—more of that, I say. But frankly, we don’t need your thoughtfulness. We know what we believe. We know what we think of the world. That’s why I’ve got a business proposition.”

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David and Mark exchanged a glance. They’d have a lot to talk about at the bar later.

“I don’t expect you to change all of TOOO on account of little Harmony,” Teller said. “But I would hire you to build us a customized instance, one groomed to the spiritual intentions of our community. We’re not trying to get away from A.I.s. We need A.I.s that share our values.”

“I can’t believe he went with the ‘precocious toddler’ cliché,” David fumed, five hours and two drinks later. “You know this guy’s church is just an idea laundry for neoreactionary politics, right? Those ‘intentional communities’ have got to be Benedict Option militia compounds.”

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“Yes, probably. But. He’s not entirely wrong.” Mark pulled off his clerical collar and fiddled with the little tab. “Our ideas of bot etiquette are mainstream. We’ve worked hard to diversify our team, but that still averages out to a sort of progressive, tech world sensibility. That doesn’t work for people who reject mainstream culture, or who want the bots they let into their homes to complement their values more intimately.”

“Doesn’t mean we have to do business with Teller.”

“What if a Hasidic community made the same request? Or an indigenous tribe asked for a custom, decolonized A.I.? Or Marxists complained that TOOO’s chatbot was a propaganda mouthpiece for the bourgeoisie? This could be where the field is going. I want to stay ahead of the curve.”

“You heard Teller. He’s worried about the triple-parentheses ‘global media’ and the triple-parentheses ‘academic elite.’ You want to enable that?”

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“If we don’t, someone else will. And I bet they won’t be that careful about making sure Teller’s low-key anti-Semitism doesn’t make it into the bot. But we would be, because you’ve got exactly that expertise. Think about the harm prevention angle before you say no. Plus—what’d you say when we met?—we need the gig.”

Mark was right that Decen.cy needed to take on significant new business to keep growing, and David still had student loans to pay off. So, despite David’s reservations, they began to explore the FireHaven project. As Mark had suspected, they had competition. They weren’t the only A.I. grooming firm anymore—or even the only one in Austin. Teller shopped around, soliciting bids from Transcend.nt, formerly a meditation app that had pivoted to selling chatbot life-coaching protocols, as well as BestYouU, which specialized in habit modification.

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As the proposal process unfolded, David realized that FireHaven’s demands went beyond grooming out the bad bot-havior or programming in Christian politeness. He had assumed Decen.cy would mostly edit overly atheistic language, write a routine for the A.I. to pray if asked; recent Jewish theological scholarship had argued that chatbots were a type of media, not a life-form, so David felt no qualms about imposing faith behaviors on the A.I. These tweaks, however, only scratched the surface of Teller’s vision.

Teller wanted an A.I. that supported and encouraged his particular brand of Christian morality. This meant changing how TOOO’s bot interacted with many situations, from talking about the weather (“The Lord has blessed us with another sunny day!”) to responding to a user’s mental health crisis (“The devil is tempting and tormenting you! Beg Jesus for strength and guidance!”). It also meant tracking certain users’ activities to a degree that bordered on invasive. Teller wasn’t concerned with the bot’s behavior, David realized, but that of his human flock.

“ ‘Humility,’ ‘faithfulness,’ ‘chastity’—these are actual categories Teller wants the FireHaven bot to provide user metrics for.”

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David had chosen to confront Mark about his misgivings after their Friday Shabbat dinner, which he and Becca were trying to host every Friday, now that they’d moved in together to a new house in Tarrytown. He wasn’t proud of seizing home-field advantage, and he kept filling his wine glass to build up his courage.

“I think those are called ‘virtues,’ ” Mark burped, a little drunk himself. The November night was raw on David’s front porch, and the chill made both men think of home. “They’re from this old book of stories, starts with a ‘B.’ Maybe you’ve read it?”

“The Bible says virtue is judged by God, not some algorithm written by a bunch of tech bros.”

“Still, there are worse metrics to optimize for. Don’t we want people to be good?” Mark kicked his feet up on the porch railing. “We both know TOOO sells data to marketing firms that build way more invasive user profiles. Do you really think surveillance Christianity will be that much worse than surveillance capitalism?”

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David took another gulp of wine. “I don’t think this is about helping people be virtuous. This is about control. Teller wants his own A.I.-policed theocracy.”

“Remember four years ago? Half your anti-Semitism project turned out to be managing and blacklisting the users, not just pruning the bot’s conversation trees. Technology is always a feedback loop with human behavior. If you make the tools, you make the rules. That’s just how it works.”

“We got into this business to make the tools better for everyone, and to be thoughtful about what that meant—not hand them over to culture warriors like Teller.”

“Don’t focus on Teller. Teller is just the on-ramp. We do this job, we get the tech and expertise to go to way more legit denominations—Methodists, Anglicans, Orthodox, Sunni, Shiite, the Vatican! The church, mosque, or synagogue can’t be everywhere all the time, but A.I.s can. Keeping your faith is hard. A chatbot could intervene in your moments of weakness and temptation, could remind you of the kind of person you wanted to be. How can I fault Teller’s congregation for wanting that, when a part of me wishes I’d had that same source of strength? Imagine how different our lives might have been. Maybe I’d be a priest and you’d be a rabbi.”

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Mark tugged the tab of his clerical collar out of his pocket and worried it in his hands. He had always played the apostate, let David be the devout one. David realized then that the truth was quite reversed. Mark was a believer who pretended to be an atheist. David was an atheist who too often pretended to be a believer.

“But, Mark, I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I was terrified of leading a synagogue and counseling people in crisis. I never wanted to be the person who tells people what’s right and what’s wrong, and I never wanted Decen.cy to make those judgments, either. Perfect moral guides tracking and judging everything we do—that’s not making chatbots. That’s making gods.”

“Well, that genie is out of the bottle. It’s gonna happen with or without us. I say we get in on the ground floor and build in some best practices, so at least they’ll be decent gods.”

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“No.” David set aside his drink and stood up. “I won’t do it. We can’t go down this road.”

“Fine. We don’t have to.”

Mark threw back the last of his own glass and put on his clerical collar. Without another word he swung his legs off the porch railing and stumbled off into the clammy night.

David sat back down and swirled his wine until the cold seeped deep into his body and his heart thumped sluggish and slack. Eventually Becca came out to check on him.

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“Where’d Mark go?” she asked. “I thought you guys would be debating theology all night.”

“We were. But … I think one of us just quit.”

When Monday rolled around, it was David who quit. He was polite about it. He didn’t try to lead a staff revolt. He just wrapped up his affairs and got out by Hanukkah.

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The following year, David founded a new company, Thought.fl. He didn’t intend a rivalry, but the gossip sites still ran that angle. Two poster boys of the hot new faith-oriented A.I. movement, fallen out and gunning for each other. Soon, however, they were old news, crowded out by dozens of new startups entering the space. There was EyeOnHigh, Ho.ly, BelieveBot, FaithHome, Pio.us, Dhar.ma, Kar.ma, GuardianAIngel. Even the tech industry giants got in on the game. Google DeepMind spun off DeepSoul. Apple quietly added ‘creed sensitivity’ options to Siri. Facebook-Analytica began to apply flock-management principles to their ideological walled gardens.

Every new technology, the joke went, started in the hands of pornographers and ended up in the hands of missionaries. FireHaven wasn’t the only faith group interested in artificial intelligence. In the fragmented religious revivals that followed a decade of global culture war, countless sects, movements, and denominations commissioned A.I. systems to guide their adherents, normalize their values, and manage their flocks. And once those systems became common, it was easy for lone zealots and eccentrics to tweak them to strange purposes.

Long-dead cults reappeared as bot-borne fads and niche religious practices gained new purchase. You could convert your smart home to Zoroastrianism, get your self-driving car to teach you Santería, buy a refrigerator that worshipped Quetzalcoatl, download a bot that would help you live like a second-century Gnostic. The church finds its own uses for things.

Through these years of proliferation, Thought.fl struggled to find its feet. The neutral, inoffensive A.I. grooming industry had been buried by values-forward botsmiths that courted endorsements from bishops, gurus, imams, even cultish celebrity tastemakers. Gone were the ethical debates, the workshopping of sensitive conversation trees. David thought often of those late nights with Mark—the almost-priest and the almost-rabbi hashing out the world’s problems in a Texas bar.

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Becca took a job in Vancouver and asked David to leave Thought.fl to follow her one more time. It was her way, he thought, of giving him a way out of a situation that was making him miserable. But when she left, he stayed in Austin.

For a few months he rattled around the Tarrytown house, then sold it. He’d sunk what savings he’d accumulated at Decen.cy into starting Thought.fl, without retiring his student debts. For weeks he slept in his office, showered at the gym. His small staff of contractors didn’t seem to notice. Finally he liquidated his equity and passed the company on to one of his interns. Then, hat metaphorically in hand, he rode his bike across town and begged Aiden Shure for a job.

Being Town of Our Own’s pet intellectual wasn’t so bad. David dabbled in marketing and product design. He sat in on visioning meetings and waxed eloquent about the Talmudic origins of modern municipal governance. And he got to represent TOOO on streaming roundtables and South by Southwest panels.

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It was after one of those panels, at a mixer in the office of some startup he’d never heard of, waiting in line for an overpriced cocktail he didn’t want, that David saw Mark for the first time since quitting Decen.cy.

“No collar?” David asked.

Mark wore his white jeans and black button-down shirt, but he lacked his signature accessory. He also looked tired.

“Not feeling very ecclesiastical tonight,” Mark said. “Been trying for years to get this Vatican contract, but today we heard they’re going with in-house developers instead. There goes my shot at sainthood.”

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David could’ve gloated, he knew what it was like to be humbled, and he knew there was no glory in salting Mark’s wounds. Instead, he said: “Wanna get out of here? Find someplace where they serve the cheap stuff?”

“I actually stopped drinking,” Mark said. “But that dive on Rio Grande still slings a mean soda water.”

Walking into Dirty Bill’s, ordering drinks together, sitting down at the far end of the bar, both men felt a weight vanish, replaced by a sense of great relief. It was as though the years of strain and animosity had never happened. They talked openly of their business travails, their techno-moral dilemmas. They cried over David’s failed relationship. They cracked unfunny jokes and laughed uproariously. Forgiveness was a hell of a drug.

At the end of the night, as the bartender waved for last call, the conversation turned to the accelerating shift in global spirituality they had helped launch.

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“It’s gone much further than I’d wanted,” Mark admitted. “People aren’t supported in their faith, they’re siloed. You’ve got people living in gated communes like FireHaven, never challenged on their more problematic beliefs, while other people think conversion is as simple as downloading a new app. I know I complained that faith was hard, but it should be hard.”

“I worry about what happens in a generation,” David said. “Will all religion be entirely mediated by A.I.? Are we on the brink of digital holy war? Cyber crusades to kill the heathens’ robot gods?”

“Listen to us,” Mark chuckled. “Cranky old men, scared of the future we made. Real question is, what are we gonna do about it?”

David sipped his Lone Star, which, somewhere along the line, he’d actually learned to love.

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“I’ve never been a strong believer,” he said, “but I always feel closest to God when I’m arguing about him, being challenged. When I take my conception of the divine, and hold it up next to someone else’s, I see these similarities that make me think there is some real truth there, that maybe we can figure out how to be good. I wish there were more venues where people could have that experience.”

“You’re talking about starting an interfaith dialogue organization. A Catholic and a Jew, facilitating debates and conversations about our technotheological future. That’s a solid pitch. I’d be in.”

“Actually,” David finished his drink, “I was thinking we could start a bar.”

Read a response essay by Ruth Graham, a Slate staff writer who covers religion.

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This story and essay, and the accompanying art, are presented by AI Policy Futures, which investigates science fiction narratives for policy insights about artificial intelligence. AI Policy Futures is a joint project of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University and the Open Technology Institute at New America, and is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Google.

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