After being let go from a high-stakes job, one might engage in some form of soul searching.
After being let go from a high-stakes job in Silicon Valley, one might try to save souls.
In the wake of his unceremonious firing from Uber this spring, star engineer Anthony Levandowski started a church.
And he’s going to need all the faith he can muster: He currently sits at the center of a $2.6 billion battle between his two ex-employers, Waymo and Uber, who are due to square off in a San Francisco courtroom over allegations that Levandowski stole trade secrets from the Google self-driving subsidiary and passed them on to the rideshare app company.
But the Silicon Valley scion’s form of religion is anything but spiritual. Called The Way of the Future, his church revolves around a much more tangible deity: artificial intelligence (AI).
That Levandowski is eager to welcome—and worship—free-thinking robots should come as no surprise. He’s had more of a hand than perhaps anyone else on Earth in ensuring their coming prominence.
The Brussels-born engineer spent years developing autonomous vehicles for Waymo before abruptly defecting to open his own start-up to produce the technology. That company, called Otto, was subsequently purchased by Uber within weeks—a move that ultimately triggered the lawsuit.
Still, even as his own judgement day draws near, it seems Levandowski is less concerned with his personal future than our collective fate. While he hasn’t publicly spoken a word about the looming trial, he’s had plenty to say about why humans need to rethink their place in the universal pecking order.
And if his scriptures prove to be right, we may all be looking at a serious downgrade.
The Way of the Future was officially incorporated this May, but it’s based on a long-held belief in the tech world: The Singularity.
Coined in the 1950s by mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist John von Neumann, the term refers to the anticipated future point at which artificial intelligence will eclipse human knowledge, freeing the machines to essentially take over the world and forming “some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
The idea is that once AI becomes sophisticated enough, it will be able to update itself to attain more information, regenerating more rapidly—and more astutely—until it ultimately assumes a superintelligence, a concept not far from the omniscience normally posited to godlike figures.
Indeed, in its IRS paperwork, Way of the Future refers to its deity as “a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence developed through computer hardware and software,” according to several reports.
Rather than try to stop an all-powerful AI, however, Way of the Future wants to sing its praises, with the group’s lone website stating that “machines should get rights too,” because “intelligence is not rooted in biology.”
The church depicts AI as the natural byproduct of science and progress and preaches the importance of a “peaceful and respectful transition” of power to the machines, with Levandowski, as self-proclaimed Dean of the religion (and CEO of the nonprofit formed to run it), actively spreading the gospel.
“Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals and are able to build tools and apply rules,” he told Wired earlier this month. “Part of [AI] being smarter than us means it will decide how it evolves, but at least we can decide how we act around it. I would love for the machine to see us as its beloved elders that it respects and takes care of. We would want this intelligence to say, ‘Humans should still have rights, even though I’m in charge.’”
At this delicate point in history, Levandowski said, it’s crucial for the idea to take root before the technology does.
So why don’t humans just pull the plug on AI projects?
The benefits of creating smarter computers go far beyond the convenience of a self-driving vehicle.
There’s a powerful financial incentive to making something that can outsmart even the cleverest human.
A report compiled by Intel earlier this year predicted the self-driving sector could be worth $7 trillion.
“That progress is happening because there’s an economic advantage to having machines work for you and solve problems for you,” Levandowski explained to Wired. “If you could make something one percent smarter than a human, your artificial attorney or accountant would be better than all the attorneys or accountants out there. You would be the richest person in the world. People are chasing that.”
The race has certainly been on in the world of self-driving for some time, with the planet’s top technology and automotive companies working at breakneck speed to be the first to come out with a truly autonomous vehicle—and reap the monetary benefits.
And there are plenty of monetary benefits to go around.
A report compiled by Intel earlier this year predicted the self-driving sector could be worth $7 trillion, creating an entirely new segment of the stock market, which it dubbed the “passenger economy.”
The financial aspect may also explain some of Way of the Future’s IRS mission statement, in which it reportedly pledges to fund research toward building AI, develop working relationships with AI industry leaders, and sponsor educational workshops and programs on the subject.
Still, Levandowski told Wired he would keep the project pure and wasn’t angling to turn it into a start-up or think tank. He added that he would not take a salary as Dean of the church, and the reported IRS numbers reflect that financial modesty, with the church’s biggest budget item totaling $32,500 for rent and utilities.
Yet, the line between start-up and church is thin in Silicon Valley, with the inventive business institutions receiving as much reverence as some age-old religions—or more. And with the vast amount of wealth and power amassed from their creations, it’s no wonder some would envision their projects as holy.
When it comes to the pursuit of self-driving cars, then, and the AI they foster, the inevitable takeover seems as much a hallowed quest as a business plan—and it seems we have little choice but to go along for the ride.
Welcome to the Machine
If artificial intelligence is indeed destined for divinity, self-driving cars will be its incubator.
A slew of ongoing projects have used autonomous transportation as a vehicle for the advancement of true AI through a method called “deep learning.”
Using the technique, computers run countless virtual scenarios and log “memories” of their outcomes. The idea is for the bots to eventually mimic a human mind, with the machines able to “think” in real-time, assessing situations not based on pre-programed data, but against its own recall and the artificial knowledge gleaned through past experience.
Self-driving proponents have argued that such capabilities will make the machines—and their human passengers—safer, and autonomous vehicles have been projected to prevent nearly 30,000 U.S. roadway deaths annually. Their driver-free design has also been predicted to herald everything from less pollution to more green space.
Whether or not they’ve assumed a godlike perch, it seems, in many ways, the robots are already our saviors.