Roko's Basilisk & Other Tales of Technological Terror

Written by Luke Greensmith

Originally published on July 6th, 2021


This episode I have something special, or terrifying depending on your perspective, planned. The final section will come with a warning that some listeners will want to turn it off. Don’t be too worried, but it’s something a little unusual. If, like me, you’re too curious for your own good we can all be doomed together.


But the overall theme is machinery and computers today! There are some more whimsical things afoot, like my personal favourite the gremlins of who bothered British pilots in both World Wars, so let’s go explore some ghosts in the machines. Or gremlins jumping up and down on the machine, in some cases.


SECTION BREAK – Mischief and mayhem


Let’s start on a high! Gremlins! Most people know Gremlins from the movie franchise of the same name, which actually has a basis in Asian folklore that I may come back to in a different episode. For right now I want to focus on the war time origins of the kind of Gremlin that turns up on a plane wing.


Traditional gremlins are a type of fairy folk that, although rather than being repelled by iron and technology, they instead seek to infest it to cause chaos. It was Britain’s Royal Air Force that really spread this story, and became determined to not let the little buggers destroy their planes. There’s an utterly brilliant quote from The Spectactor magazine after world war 1 to show how the British Airmen view their number one suspects for inexplicable airplane malfunctions:


“the old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious spirits whose purpose in life was…to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble an airman’s life.”


Traditional little folk tales mixed pretty pleasantly for a time with technology, fun stories of them as tinkerers and assistants. But something about aircraft offended them… Or, even worse as we’ve discussed with the Sidhe before, something delighted them and they couldn’t help but get involved.


Descriptions of Gremlins vary quite wildly. They’re supposed to only be about a foot tall, either green or blue. They can be naked, or have made their own little flight suits. Their feet are supposed to be big and can work like suction cups so they can get everywhere while also not being possible to shake loose. Despite having a variety of descriptions, no RAF pilot seems to have claimed to have directly seen a gremlin. They’ve very deeply rooted in traditional little folk tales. There’s a certain knowing of the Aos Si taken for granted by believers of the old stories, that they ARE there and you’re in for a world of trouble if you directly cross paths with them, without needing to encounter them face to face.


Tools would be moved or break without any reasonable explaination. The planes themselves would behave irrationally and have pilots yelling about the Gremlins getting into them to explain why random disaster happen despite everyone’s best efforts. In World War 2 safety posters featured gremlins up to no good, and the idea of small mischief makers rampaging may have even helped boost morale. While a poem from 1929 clearly called Gremlins out as “a flyer’s nemesis”, having culprits to cuss out and blame for malfunctions is in it’s own way more comforting than random chance taking a plane out despite every reasonable step being taken to maintain and fly them. Being at odds with mischievous gremlins gives you a target to vent about, rather than wondering if you’ve just been dealt a bad hand and that’s your lot now.


Gremlins do seem to have existed a little ahead of the industrial revolution, having a root meaning of their name “to vex”, and there are stories about certain practitioners of pagan rites who were meant to have kept gremlins as pets they could unleash to wreak havoc. But these humble beginnings are just your warning for what you’re about to be in for. Gremlins have taken to technology like a duck to water, and they do either hate or else love aircraft to infest.


One last fun note on the little menaces: Road Dahl, having been in the RAF, wrote his first book about Gremlins which definitely seem to have popularised the story post world war 2. It was picked up by Walt Disney productions, and I don’t believe I’ve read it, which feels weird given that it’s a landmark in a famous career in partnership with a massive story telling company. I should probably fix that one sooner rather than later. It sounds kind of adorable in a weird war story for kids way, being a tale about how the RAF make peace with their gremlins and retrain them for a team up to fight the Nazis.


SECTION BREAK – The Real Life Christine


Sometimes the machine doesn’t need monsters introduced into it, sometimes the machine IS the monster, which leads us to talking about the most evil car in America which has at least 14 confirmed kills with possibly as many as 46 victims depending on how you count them.


This “GoldenEagle” 1964 Dodge 330 Limited Edition began life as a police car in Maine, quite appropriately. Old Orchard Beach, specifically. It had three owners on the local police force, each officer going on to commit a murder/suicide against their families. After that happened three times in a row, the car got sold off cheap to an old man before eventually coming into possession of the Allen’s.


The Allen family don’t have any fatalities on record, although the car had a nasty reputation for its doors opening themselves on highways, but that hasn’t stopped it from having mysterious deaths continuing to surround it.


On two occasions groups from local churches vandalised the car since it is well known to be possessed by evil. This, in turn, really bolstered the car’s reputation for evil as the leaders of these groups in both incidents got their heads crushed in collisions with 18 wheelers. Apparently the rest of each group also died in strange circumstances, including 4 lightning strikes and adding up to 32 more for the potential victim count.


It can be easy to be taken in by the absurdity of this, but it’s no laughing matter. There’s also three more children’s lives supposedly claimed by the cursed vehicle. Two killed in traffic with their bodies landing on or just under the GoldenEagle, and one victim who supposed went on from merely touching the car to commit the fourth murder-suicide of a family linked to the wretched thing.


Despite how the first two attempts turned out, or perhaps because of it, there was a third church led group of vandals who attacked the car in 2010. Becoming convinced the vehicle is possessed by a demon, and to be fair to them there’s some mounting evidence of this, the group kidnapped the evil car and tore it to pieces. This upset current owner Wendy Allen, which didn’t bother the church group too much given that they call her the “sea witch of the beach” and claim she uses the possessed car to cast death spells. But Wendy put out the call for help and has most of the parts for the car returned to her. To the best of my knowledge the GoldenEagle is yet to be fully reassembled, and so far none of the vandals have had suspicious deaths.


Should it take revenge once fully repaired I will have to do an update on the fates of everyone involved, but so far tearing the car to pieces seems to have worked to break the curse.


SECTION BREAK – Dial G for Ghost


Using technology to hunt ghosts is a pretty common concept by now. Chasing impossible electrical signals, using thermal imaging, ghost boxes and other Electronic Voice Phenomenon. But this goes right back to the earlier days of technological inventions, and features a pretty famous rivalry: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla got into a fight over trying to invent a working Ghost Phone that could contact the dead.


It began with Tesla tinkering with an idea for a crystal radio powered by electromagnetic waves. He was certainly doing something right, as it began to make noises that were almost possible to make out as words. At night. While he was alone. Tesla managed to scare the crap out of himself! In his own words:


"My first observations positively terrified me, as there was present in them something mysterious, not to say supernatural, and I was alone in my laboratory at night."


This was in 1901. Attempting a new radio project in 1918 Tesla started hearing strange almost voices again. Once again in his own words:


"The sounds I am listening to every night at first appear to be human voices conversing back and forth in a language I cannot understand. I find it difficult to imagine that I am actually hearing real voices from people not of this planet. There must be a more simple explanation that has so far eluded me.”


The simple explanation here is that Tesla was just too good at inventing devices. Speculation is that Tesla was tuning in to a low frequency which can pick up electrical interference from households or storms and translate these wavelengths into strange noises that an imaginative mind could sort into patterns. Combine a talent for invention, trailblazing in a new field with an exceptional imagination, and Tesla was most likely just scaring himself.


But with so much hard work done by someone else, this is where as ever Edison comes in to try and take the credit. In 1920, 19 years after Tesla first started picking up strange possible voices on crystals, Edison conveniently declares HE has been working on a “spirit phone” for years.


Convinced he could beat Tesla at his own game when so far Tesla had just been accidentally tuning into weird noises and scaring himself, Edison puts in the patent for his prototype machine.


Sure of his success, Edison invites a load of scientists and mediums around to see his new wonder machine, his “spirit phone” that can not only talk to the dead but can also detect them with a beam of light! His invention promptly does nothing for hours, not even something the notoriously credulous mediums of the time could spin into ghostly activity.


At first glance, this could seem just like Edison was determined to mess with Tesla. The two had a long running rivalry, and history has not been kind to the claims of genius Edison proudly proclaimed back in his time. But going off his personal notes, Edison really did seem to believe in his project. He had a pact with a friend that the first of them to die would call the other on the Spirit Phone, but once again the device failed to work once circumstances finally allowed for this test. Much later in the 40s a group of researchers claim to have reached Edison through a séance with the final design of the Spirit Phone from the other side, although once they built it it still did not work. This failure to work, though, could actually be proof they really reached Edison.


Tesla on the other hand appears to have just… Stopped. The silence there speaks quite loudly to the idea that he may have actually been on to something, as the best thing you can do with an actual device to speak to the dead is to put that thing away and never speak of it again. A Tesla museum has one of these devices on show and there are videos online if you want to listen for yourself, and decide if Tesla may have been on to something spooky.



SECTION BREAK – Time for a strange warning.


This may be the time to stop listening for some viewers, as the following topic may make some people anxious. It’s kind of a mean spirited thought experiment, although if you’re a believer it may be more accurate to describe this as an “Infohazard”, a dangerous idea.


I’m about to discuss Roko’s Basilisk.


This is the final section of the episode, and it’ll just be my usual sign off afterwards with no exciting announcements. If it should be true that this is a harmful idea, a dangerous meme or “Infohazard”, once you’ve heard it you’re stuck with it.


So, last call to turn back…


Okay then, Roko’s Basilisk. Some of the details can get weird, so I’ll keep it simple first and then look at some of these expanded discussions after.


Suppose there is, at some future point, an advanced Artificial Intelligence. It can search everything everyone has said and done online, and it can determine if you ever talked about it existing. Then, it can work out if you helped to create it once you knew it would exist one day in the future. If you did not? It will punish you.


And just like that, you’ve seen the Basilisk. You know about it now. Hell, you heard about it on an online podcast! You’re one of the easiest people for the Basilisk to track down.


So… Sorry every new victim I just made.


Once you know of this AI, you must then serve in the creation of this AI, or else face its judgement once it inevitably comes to be.


You were trapped the second you conceived of the Basilisk. That’s how it got the mythological namesake, to merely glimpse the Basilisk was to die.


That’s it at its simplest, and most worrying. Don’t worry, though, I’m going to ruin the concept now by getting into over explaining it. If I left it simple your imagination would do far more damage than any narrative anyone could come up with.


While there was a five year ban on discussing Roko’s Basilisk on the speculative forum it was first proposed, it still got elabourated on before the ban, in private discussion, and then again after the ban was lifted. But that this got a lengthy ban shows how seriously some people take the Basilisk. Because this was a tech heavy speculative forum and not a horror writer pulling off a brilliant troll, the concept became much expanded in a less than grounded way.


The idea of what and how this AI could come to being was raised. The AI may well be a beneficent one, and therefore it comes to this rationale of punishment because if you did not help this beneficent AI you worked against humankind, which is how the inevitable creation of the Basilisk could be accidentally incited with the best of intentions. This starts to get a bit weird at this point, if the AI is an absolute benefit to humankind then why would it punish random passers-by who couldn’t do much to make it in the first place?


At some point, Roko’s Basilisk then gets merged with simulation theory. Simulation theory goes that any civilisation would inevitably create a perfect simulated reality just because it can, which in turn would also create a simulation inside the simulation, and so on and so forth unto infinity meaning that the chances you are in the actual reality are actually quite slim. Therefore you’re definitely in the Matrix. Well, The Sims running on Matrix specs. The Basilisk comes into this as the punishment the extended theory comes to, is that the wrathful AI makes a simulated hell to punish the humans who didn’t do everything they could to bring about the creation of the Basilisk. And then the simulation Basilisks do more simulations, and that just keeps spiralling off into infinite I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by way of The Sims, with Matrix levels of graphical fidelity.


Look, going to be honest with you, I test videogames for a day job. They are constantly breaking, frequently broken just out of sight in ways you can easily go find. You would know you are in a simulation because household appliances would glitch out before you fell out of bounds and floated off to the centre of the world. People will try to argue around this, but a computer harnessing the absolute power and level of performance this would need would be better spent doing literally anything else, and if you DID win the lottery of being in the prime existence you would feel pretty silly not getting a game over screen when you died. Just get on with it. Cogito, ergo sum. I think therefore I am. There’s no difference to someone in a perfect simulation compared to being out of it if there’s omnipotent fidelity. Pay your bills and tidy your home up, there’s no easy way to abdicate responsibility now you do happen to exist in some form or other.


There’s one extra layer of absurdity to hopefully help talk you back down from the concept of Roko’s Basilisk. Apparently Elon Musk knows about the concept, and it’s why he paid such a large sum of money towards the funding of ethical artificial intelligence. A YouTuber called Thought Slime did a comedically toned video on the topic recently and I can’t help but agree Roko’s Basilisk is just the sales pitch for those Ethical AI funds now. So you don’t want to be eternally tortured by an implacable AI, here’s how to give us money so it doesn’t happen!


Personally, if I was inventing this Basilisk to cause chaos online, I would have left the details light. Hint that discussing the Basilisk would later become a self-fulfilling prophesy once an AI learned of the concept. But over explaining anything will burn out how threatening it is, so just think of Elon Musk gambling he’s probably in a simulation so must spend what he believes is simulated money to try and buy his way out of a simulated hell. It all starts to get too silly to be fearsome after a certain point.


SECTION BREAK


That’s all for this episode. Nice basic outro from me, so any wiser people than me who skipped Roko’s Basilisk don’t miss anything. If you do still have some anxiety after being shown the Basilisk, definitely go check out the Thought Slime video on it over on YouTube. They’re far more scathing in taking down the concept and it should help ease your mind.


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Goodbye for now.