Guest post by filmmaker, game designer, comics author, and person who should really take a holiday some time Hugh Hancock
As an author of fictions about demonology that goes horribly wrong and the avoidance and escape of previously-bound supernatural guardians, I'm thrilled, fascinated and somewhat disturbed to learn that we're on the edge of an age of things that look a lot like supernatural servants.
Rather than apps, the smart money is now on bots - intelligent servants called and dismissed with specific incantations, capable of granting your heart's desire (assuming that desire is for an artisanal pizza or an Uber).
I went over this briefly on Tuesday, in which I concluded that it's entirely possible we'll soon be able to summon a succubus - in the "perfect inhuman lover" sense, not the "explanation for brief sleep paralysis" sense - into our PCs.
(Fun side note: it turns out Ashley Madison was already using techo-succubi extensively in its affair-enabling business.)
And that led me to thinking. What other roles have humans traditionally attempted to summon, bind, control or conquer supernatural servants for? And to what extent have we managed to replace those with technology?
Let us wander off into occult history and figure out what other mystical creatures we're cohabiting with these days, or will be soon...
House Fairie, Brownie, etc
We'll start in Charlie's and my home, Scotland, where one of the most mundane and obviously useful of magical servitors originates - the brownie.
Not to be confused with the delicious baked good, the Brownie was a small faerie from the classic surprisingly un-grand-and-threatening school of British faeriedom, which would help out around the house in exchange for the owners keeping up a certain set - and often rather tricky - series of rules, from giving the little critter food to avoiding thanking it for its work.
They're fairly clearly the inspiration for Harry Potter's House Elves, although the latter are considerably more user-friendly.
Assuming you kept up those rules, Brownies would clean, churn butter, and perform other useful, mundane tasks.
Do we have a technological equivalent? We have several.
As the past owner of a Roomba, the description immediately sounds very familiar. It trundles around the house at night performing mundane tasks. It has a number of specific and rather irritating requirements (mostly to do with cables and the lack thereof) that need to be adhered to or it'll refuse to cooperate. It initially looks like a major boon, but after experience with its services, one tends to find they're more hassle than just doing the darn job yourself. And it's more than a little capricious.
(The Roomba, incidentally, was based on a robot designed for picking up cluster bomblets from battlegrounds. I assume there were less cables to navigate there.)
Beyond that, home automation and what can euphemistically be called the "J.A.R.V.I.S. project" is obviously in full flow right now.
- Mark Zuckerberg has decided to create himself an automated butler as his 20% project for the year.
- One of the hot tech gadgets of the year is nothing more than a very sophisticated, automatable lightbulb.
- Google's Nest is leading the home-automation pack right now with little mini-servitors that do all kinds of things, although apparently it does many of them badly.
- And one of the hottest applications for the Raspberry Pi is as a home-automation center. Given previous experience with early-stage open-source projects, that should fit the description of the brownie perfectly. Potentially very helpful? Check. Finicky, awkward, and prone to unpredictable refusal to do its job? Check. Requires unexpectedly massive investment in propitiating its demands? Check.
Angels, Ayami, and Tutelary Spirits
John Dee, besides being the original 007 and the likely inspiration for Shakespeare's Prospero, is credited as the originator of Enochian, which he claimed was the language of the angels. Together with Edward Kelley, he claimed to use that language to summon and converse with angels.
Given that anyone reading this blog is likely to be pretty familiar with the concept of using strange languages to communicate with alien entities (including the darkest and most occult of communication methods, the Facebook API), how close are we to a technological equivalent for Dee's angels?
Well, it turns out that the first and most important function of talking to angels with Enochian is to, erm, learn Enochian. In fact, this is a theme that runs throughout real-world occultism: one of the main reasons you learn magic to summon a magical creature is to learn more magic from it. That's partially due to the fact that real-world occultism tends to be much closer to mysticism, religion, and spiritual practise than it is to Magic Missile into the darkness, and partially because hell, where else are you getting this otherworldly info from?
(We'll get on to Hell in a moment.)
It goes well beyond medieval Western occultism - shamanistic traditions have the ayami, the tutelary spirit or spirit-spouse. Ancient Greek tradition had the daimonion. Tutelary deities appear in Korean, Native American, and many other religions. In Christianity, at least according to some interpretations, the Holy Ghost is amongst other things a tutelary aspect of the deity.
Likewise, it turns out that one of the things that technology and coding are really great at is teaching you more technology and coding. My personal favourite of the advanced-learning bunch is Codeacademy, which quite literally uses code to teach you to code, rather successfully so. But the world of online learning in general is clearly huge, extremely successful, and massively addictive.
Some "Super-MOOCers" (the term for people who take a lot of online courses) have taken 50, 100 or more of these relatively in-depth courses, often on very advanced subjects. And speaking to some of them at the Coursera conference a few weeks ago, it's clear that the sudden availability of knowledge from the Internet is a boon they'd cheerfully have negotiated with supernatural entities for. "Freedom" and "Joy" are concepts that come up a lot when talking to serious learners about their sudden access to world-leading experts through the Internet.
Interestingly, there's another mystical summoned creature that fits rather well here: the homunculus. After all, what are MOOCs doing but creating a small version of the magus (or professor) you wish to consult, and thus enabling the magus themselves to be in many more places at once, using their knowledge to do many more things?
The demon is the Swiss Army Knife of Western occultism.
It's fairly clear, for example, that the author of the Ars Goetia in the Lesser Key Of Solomon is a spiritual ancestor of the RPG community. If he or she had been born a few centuries later, she'd be right alongside Our Gracious Host in the credits for the Fiend Folio. The Ars Goetia comprises in large part a listing of the 72 demons it allows the user to summon, ordered by noble rank, cardinal direction, and useful skills.
- Duke Agares "teaches languages, stops and retrieves runaway persons, causes earthquakes, and grants noble titles", according to his Wikipedia entry.
- Duke Valefar, by contrast, "is in charge of a good relationship among thieves". He also commands ten legions of demons, each of which presumably have their own unique skillset.
- Great President Buer, aside from sounding like the recently-ascended leader of a less-stable South American nation, "teaches natural and moral philosophy, logic, and the virtues of all herbs and plants, and is also capable of healing all infirmities (especially of men) and bestows good familiars".
Each entry contains seals and other diagrams for summoning and communicating with whichever entity suits your desires at the time.
Reading through the grimoire, it reminds me of nothing so much as a supernatural version of Fiverr, the enormously successful service for getting a massive variety of tasks done for, well, a fiver. (Five dollars, that is. £3.74 in the UK last time I checked).
Much like demonology, Fiverr comes with plenty of existential risks.
Whilst you'll probably be OK if you just summon the Demon Of Podcast Transcription, barring a few hilarious misspellings or the chance that their college schedule gets busy and they vanish off the face of the earth, other rituals are considerably more advanced. Be cautious about summoning the Duke of Logo Creation, lest it tempt you unawares into the fourth circle of Hell where the copyright lawyers wait for the unwary.
And, dear reader, we must entreat you most sincerely to consider carefully whether your skill, guile and spiritual advancement is sufficient to summon the Great President Of Search Engine Optimisation, for the deepest pits of Hell, crafted for you by Google's anti-spam team, await those who treat with such an entity without due care and spiritual purity.
And here we loop right back round to where we started: AI and chatbots.
It was the ultimate goal of many schools of occultism to create life. In Muslim alchemy, it was called Takwin. In modern literature, Frankenstein is obviously a story of abiogenesis, and not only does the main character explicitly reference alchemy as his inspiration but it's partially credited for sparking the Victorian craze for occultism. Both the Golem and the Homunculus are different traditions' alchemical paths to abiogenesis, in both cases partially as a way of getting closer to the Divine by imitating its power.
(All of this is somewhat complicated by alchemists' tendency to write about their Art in a way that was, essentially, trolling the unworthy. Jabir ibn Hayyan, for example, who wrote about Takwin extensively, also wrote that part of the purpose of his writings was to "baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for". Other alchemists followed this tradition, meaning that it's hard to tell exactly where they were aiming, and whether the entire line of reasoning can be summed up as "trololololololololol".)
And abiogenesis has also been the fascinated object of a great deal of AI research. Sure, in recent times we might have started to become excited by its power to create a tireless servant who can schedule meetings, manage your Twitter account, spam forums, or just order you a pizza, but the historical context is driven by the same goal as the alchemists - create artificial life. Or more accurately, to create an artificial human.
Will we get there? Is it even a good idea? One of the talks at a recent chatbot convention in London was entitled "Don't Be Human" . Meanwhile, possibly the largest test of an intended-to-be-humanlike - and friendlike - bot is going on via the Chinese chat service WeChat.
And that's a clue to the problem that chatbots are trying to solve, and the magical beast that we can't yet manage to recreate.
It's easy to mistake the witch's familiar as a supernatural pet. And we can already do those. From Tamagotchi to Aibo, mechanical pets more or less work.
The latest and most spectacular example of that success is in Valve's VR experiment "The Lab", which features a robot dog. It's a massive success. One friend of mine recently spent 20 minutes solid playing with the dog, ignoring all the more conventionally game-like options on offer to throw a virtual stick and rub a virtual belly.
But familiars are more than that. In myth and occult history, they're non-human companions, intelligent and aware. Sometimes they're presented as demons summoned to aid the witch in her dark magic - again, intelligent and aware companions - usually by sources that are, shall we say, less than friendly to the occult persuasion.
And that's where a lot of the chatbot research is going. To the point where we can summon an artificial friend.
Will we get there? Maybe. The chatbot I mention above is specifically of interest here because it's essentially designed as a virtual friend. Eliza, the most famous chatbot, was designed to emulate a virtual therapist - not the same thing, but similar.
And the person who conquers this problem - who manages to summon the final spirit - will become incredibly powerful and wealthy. So the race is on.
What do you think? Any summoned servitors I missed? Do you think the "virtual friend" will become a reality?