In AI We Trust? The Man Who Started a Church for Robot-god Worship

Anthony Levandowski isn’t afraid of the moment when computers will become smarter than humans; in fact, he longs for it

In this Dec. 13, 2016, file photo, Anthony Levandowski, then head of Uber's self-driving program, speaks about their driverless car in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg/AP

When the buzzwords of 2017 are summed up, “artificial intelligence” will surely be right up there vying for first place with “blockchain.” Computer giants are fearful of a looming future in which robots and autonomous software will decide who to shoot, take over the labor market and make millions of behind-the-scenes decisions without anyone knowing how they were actually made.

But Anthony Levandowski isn’t afraid of that moment; in fact, he longs for it. The senior engineer worked for years at Google, leading the research in Waymo, the self-driving car project of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. He then moved to Uber with Otto, a company he founded together with an Israeli, Lior Ron. Google claims he stole the knowhow from the corporation and sold it to Uber together with the fictitious company he started. As such, he found himself at the heart of a highly publicized trial involving the companies. He denies the allegations.

But Levandowski isn’t making do with just thinking about AI for the roads. He believes that in the future the intelligent computers will be more than just an integral part of our lives – they will become our gods.

In September it emerged that Levandowski hasn’t let a huge lawsuit stop him from registering a new church called Way of the Future. According to the church’s documents, it was established as a nonprofit and will “focus on the realization, acceptance and worship of a Godhead based on AI developed through computer hardware and software,” as reported by Mark Harris in Wired magazine in November.

“It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” Levandowski asked Harris, and added, “If you ask people whether a computer can be smarter than a human, 99.9 percent will say that’s science fiction. Actually, it’s inevitable.”

Levandowski was at pains during the interview to show that he’s neither joking nor bent on making a personal profit. Though he will be the deacon of the new church, and manage it until he dies or resigns, he doesn’t intend to take a salary. However, according to Wired, two people who are listed as “advisers” to the new church have dissociated themselves from it.

‘Change is good’

As set forth on the new church’s website, Levandowski and his followers naturally believe in science and progress. “There is no such thing as ‘supernatural’ powers. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” the credo states.

“We believe that intelligence is not rooted in biology. While biology has evolved one type of intelligence, there is nothing inherently specific about biology that causes intelligence,” the church’s founders write. “Eventually, we will be able to recreate it without using biology and its limitations. From there we will be able to scale it to beyond what we can do using (our) biological limits.” And, “Change is good, even if a bit scary sometimes. When we see something better, we just change to that. The bigger the change the bigger the justification needed.”

In the meantime, the organization will continue to invest in the enhancement of AI, while the new church plans to develop educational programs in the San Francisco area. Houses of worship and sacred writings don’t yet exist, but are on the drawing board.

They’re also promising something that few religions can deliver. Like “Deep Thought,” the computer in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which was supposed to provide “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything,” it will reply to believers’ questions. And it probably won’t take it 7.5 million years only to reply, “42.”

Transfer of power

Levandowski is of course not alone in his quest. One of the best-known thinkers who’s commented about the idea is the American computer scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil. He’s been talking for years about the Singularity – the moment when computers will become smarter than humans. In an article he published on the Venture Beat website in October, he offered a scenario of 25 to 50 years as a target period for that transformation.

When the guru who leads Way of the Future talks about this “transition,” as he terms it, he sounds like he’s acknowledging the certain defeat of the human race and hoping that the new masters will accept their predecessors with understanding. “Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals and are able to build tools and apply rules,” Levandowski told Wired.

In the future, he added, “if something is much, much smarter, there’s going to be a transition as to who is actually in charge. What we want is the peaceful, serene transition of control of the planet from humans to whatever. And to ensure that the ‘whatever’ knows who helped it get along.”

But the whole topic is still deeply controversial. Despite all the recent impressive progress, it’s hard to talk about genuine intelligence in this context. At most, there are quasi-human abilities such as identifying objects and texts, and not everyone is certain that Singularity looms. Various researchers note that even all these programs are excellent (relatively statistically) in very specific, defined tasks. If they’ll be asked to deal with different, complex worlds, their limitations will become readily apparent.

Some, such as South African magnate and inventor Elon Musk and the English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, are appalled by Levandowski’s approach. “On the list of people who should absolutely not be allowed to develop digital superintelligence,” Musk tweeted in reference to Levandowski’s ideas.

In any event, Wired reported that, from Levandowski’s correspondence with Internal Revenue, it’s clear that the authorities have no problem with his plans: he received the tax-exempt status he sought for the new church. On the other hand, followers of John Oliver’s program know that this is no gauge for anything, and that if Oliver was able to get authorization to open a church called “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption,” it’s apparently not the most difficult thing to achieve.