From the A-bomb to AI, humans seem intent on repeating the same old story

Justine Toh on Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and the misguided attempt to play God that haunts past and present technological development.

“In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” So said J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb”, as he addressed an audience at MIT, two years after the United States dropped his creation on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War.

In our time, the “sin” word is a different kind of bomb to drop. But the sin Oppenheimer refers to — the knowledge that cannot be un-known — suggests something chronic about the human condition: the misguided attempt to play God that haunts past, and present, technological development.

Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning book upon which it is based, invokes the myth of Prometheus. This fabled figure defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humankind — and was then tortured for all eternity for his transgressions. The parallels with Oppenheimer are compelling: the man who spearheaded American efforts to build the bomb wound up having his security clearance withdrawn after being accused of Communist sympathies during the red scare of the 1950s.

The tale of Oppenheimer also channels, at least partially, the Bible’s origin story of the human race.

But the Prometheus comparison doesn’t exhaust the mythic riches of the tale of Oppenheimer. There are also shades of hubris: of humans overstepping god-given boundaries. Or the Bible’s story of “original sin”: Adam and Eve having their eyes opened after eating from a tree bestowing the knowledge of good and evil — and breaking the world with that fateful bite.

But the tale of Oppenheimer also channels, at least partially, the Bible’s origin story of the human race. Desiring knowledge, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, though God has explicitly forbidden it, saying: “for when you eat from it you will certainly die”. But the fruit of the tree is “pleasing to the eye” and the promise of wisdom proves all too tempting. Adam and Eve eat and, in the words of the biblical text, “then the eyes of both of them were opened”.

Their new-found knowing, however, exacts a costly price: not only their looming death, but a burden of sin and transgression borne by the entire human race. According to that ancient story, all that is now wrong with the world hinges on that fateful bite.

Granted, there’s no neat one-to-one relationship between the Fall and the development of the bomb, not least because the latter was driven by a desire to outcompete the Nazis. “I don’t know if we can be trusted with this weapon”, one character in Oppenheimer says, “but the Nazis can’t.” Nonetheless, the scientists sense the fate of the world hangs in the balance. There’s a distinct possibility that the bomb will ignite the atmosphere, sparking “a chain reaction that destroys the world”.

These world-ending fears haunt Oppenheimer’s most famous religious reference: lines from the Bhagavad Gita that he apparently thought of upon witnessing the successful detonation of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert in 1945. The sight of the giant fireball, followed by the soon-to-be iconic mushroom cloud, evoked for him the grandeur of the Hindu god Vishnu:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky that would be like the splendour of the mighty one … I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds …”

These awe-ful lines blending divine power and death, attraction and repulsion, name the bomb’s disturbing appeal: it is beautiful in its destructiveness. The successful Trinity test, the centrepiece of Nolan’s film, makes for a spectacular light show. Maybe we won’t ever “love the bomb”, so to speak. But it’s easy to be half-thrilled, half-terrified by it.

In the biblical account, sin evokes the same strange ambivalence. Can you blame the first humans for wanting to claim for themselves the knowledge of good and evil — to be like God? Even if the cost is annihilation. Like the bomb, sin is another “destroyer of worlds”: alluring and eye-opening, even as it threatens extinction.

Sin – and the bomb – also lead to escalating evils. But Pandora’s box, once opened, can’t be shut. The bomb, so adept at unmaking, couldn’t itself be unmade but would incite further terrors: the arms race and the grim possibility of “mutually assured destruction”. Half a century on after the end of the Second World War, the risk of nuclear war remains a live issue — just consider Vladimir Putin’s repeated threats to escalate hostilities in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Oppenheimer may have hoped that the bomb was “a weapon to end all wars”, one that would make international cooperation, the dream of the United Nations, a reality. By and large, this has proven naïve. In fact, these scenes in Oppenheimer may bring on a sense of déjà-vu. After all, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, has recently called for “global cooperation” to regulate the runaway development of Artificial Intelligence.

Is Altman similarly deluded? The possibility that he is should add a cautionary note to the race to develop the next technological marvel: Artificial “General” Intelligence. The two technologies aren’t the same: the bomb was meant to be a weapon, whereas the potential of AI goes far beyond its military applications. But like the bomb, AI sparks world-ending fears — not least because it suggests, like the Fall story, a fall from innocence and the ushering in of a new, more perilous, world. As Christopher Nolan told Wired Magazine, both the bomb and AI evoked “the dangers of unthinkingly unleashing a new technology on the world”.

Even the AI engineers are spooked. Geoffrey Hinton, considered the “godfather of AI”, quit Google in May, saying he wanted the freedom to speak about the dangers of the technology, including the “existential risk” it posed to humanity. Google CEO Sundar Pichai says fears that the technology could be “very harmful” if misused kept him up at night. Still, no tech company is shutting down its AI division. There’s too much at stake, just as there was with the race to develop the bomb.

There’s a streak of Adam and Eve in all of us — and AI and the A-bomb are just the latest iterations of the apple of that very old story.

Plus, as Kelsey Piper pointed out, among developers there’s a keen wish to bring AI into being. The Vox reporter said her work investigating AI had prompted her to read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. What struck her was a certain personality-type among the bombmakers that seemed similar to the culture of Silicon Valley: “there’s a kind of person who once they realise it can be done, [they have] an overwhelming urge to do it”. In which case, consider Hinton’s own account of why he worked on AI in the first place: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it”, he told the New York Times earlier this year.

“I guess this is the classic tale of hubris, in some ways”, Piper told went on to tell Ezra Klein. “The oldest known flaw in human nature is you see the tree of knowledge and you’re like, yeah, I’m going for it.”

If she’s right, then there’s a streak of Adam and Eve in all of us — and AI and the A-bomb are just the latest iterations of the apple of that very old story. But as Oppenheimer demonstrates with devastating effect, eyes that have been opened by knowledge can also come to regret it.

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.