All hail the Godbot: In Silicon Valley artificial intelligence isn't just king
Unlike most religions, which seek to connect people with the past, this one seeks to connect them with the future, the imagined “singularity” of runaway artificial intelligence.
Source: Mike Faille
There are reasons to be skeptical of The Way of the Future, a newly incorporated American religion that worships artificial intelligence as “the Godhead.”
It has no church, no worshipers, no doctrine, no scripture, and no rituals. But Anthony Levandowksi, the multi-millionaire engineer who secretly founded it in 2015, and today serves as president and CEO, has a track record of predicting and capitalizing on the future, as he did for example in the self-driving car industry.
The Way of the Future, a non-profit religious corporation in California, says its purpose is “To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society,” according to records obtained by Wired magazine.
Worshipping the artificial intelligence of computers sounds far-fetched, even for a religion, but it builds on a faith in the power of technology that already flirts with messianic dreams and apocalyptic visions.
Anthony Levandowski, in orange Nikes, joins panelists in October 2016 discussing the future of autonomous trucking. John Sommers / Creative Commons
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Knowledge has already separated from the human mind to be embodied in artificial intelligences like Siri. Navigation, once done by reference to the heavens, has become an exercise in submission to apps like Waze. Divine omniscience is replicated in the surveillance of life-tracking devices like the Fitbit.
From medicine and economics to politics and warfare, artificial intelligence is starting to guide human affairs in a way religion once did. And as machines exceed our human ability to give structure and meaning to life, a sense of reverence kicks in.
So no matter whether Levandowksi founded The Way of the Future as a prank, a scam, a prospective tax dodge, or out of a genuine hope for the advent of a Godbot, the time might be right for the gospel of AI.
The cultural groundwork is in place. Ancient concepts of revelation, transcendence and deliverance map easily onto new ideas of artificial intelligence, robotics, post-humanism and the predicted “singularity,” the merging of man and machine.
Your new god?
As the late Canadian historian David F. Noble wrote in The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, people expect more from technology than convenience, comfort, or even survival: “We demand deliverance… Artificial Intelligence advocates wax eloquent about the possibilities of machine based immortality and resurrection, and their disciples, the architects of virtual reality and cyberspace, exult in their expectation of God-like omnipresence and disembodied perfection.”
These are variations on familiar religious themes, especially the promise of a personal existence separate from the mortal limits of the body. Already, people “project” themselves on social media as disembodied “avatars” of their real selves, says Alexandra Boutros, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies the intersection of media, technology and identity in religious movements.
When AI meets religion, she says, the mythology is ready-made. Uploading your consciousness to join a greater power with limitless potential and eternal life is exactly what the Christian Rapture is all about. Believers anticipate it with the same mixture of fear and longing. It might kill them, but it will prove them right.
This perspective is common to many religions, says Arthur Kroker, professor of political science at the University of Victoria. It demands a change in thinking about what is sacred and divine, and how it relates to the ultimate destiny of humanity and the world. This shift requires more than just a will to believe, but a conversion experience. It invites a kind of spiritual mobilization, a new form of worship, like chasing salvation by giving one’s fate over to technology.
“It’s a fundamental break with the notion of the human,” says Kroker.
Even if his religion is serious, Levandowski is at least a flawed prophet. He is a robotics engineer who built Google’s Street View and ran its autonomous car project. After he was profiled in the New Yorker in 2013, protesters targeted his neighbourhood with fliers that said he was “building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation. He is also your neighbor.”
He is also at the centre of the massive industrial espionage lawsuit between Google and Uber over the self-driving car, due for trial next month. He has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination over the allegation he stole “over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files” for Google’s self-driving car when he quit and went to work for Uber, which had just bought his autonomous trucking company Otto for nearly $700-million. After Google sued Uber, Uber eventually fired Levandowski for refusing to either turn over the allegedly stolen files, or deny under oath that he took them.
The 21st century will be the century of the post-human
Levandowski has declined to speak publicly about The Way of the Future, although a friend and former engineer at one of his companies told Wired he used to talk enthusiastically about “robots taking over the world … It was like (he wanted) to be able to control the world, and robots were the way to do that. He talked about starting a new country on an island. Pretty wild and creepy stuff. And the biggest thing is that he’s always got a secret plan, and you’re not going to know about it.”
Levandowski could simply be out to bilk the gullible narcissists of Silicon Valley. He would not be the first guy to try getting rich selling religious gimmicks to Americans by scaling them up according to the technology of the day. Pat Robertson still makes news as a “televangelist.”
“There’s a kind of transcendence out there for every taste and palate,” says William Stahl, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Regina and author of God and the Chip: Religion and the Culture of Technology. Like street preachers predicting doomsday, “these people are always being disappointed because it never arrives.”
When their historical moment arrives, however, mass movements that promise immortality have a way of of overcoming steep obstacles. Kroker says The Way of the Future, or something like it, might just as well turn out to be like early Christianity in late Ancient Rome — a marginal, persecuted, evangelical faith that converted the leadership of a secular empire, shared its power and fortune, and eventually outlived it.
Christianity gained its unrivalled influence not only by preaching a compelling supernatural and mythic message, but by climbing the scaffold of an economic powerhouse that already had cultish tendencies of emperor worship.
Customers hold a pillow with an image of the late Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs as they wait in line before the launch of the iPhone X in Tokyo, Japan. In some ways, Jobs is seen as something of a saint Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Things look similar in Silicon Valley today, where inventors like the late Steve Jobs of Apple acquire the status of saints, and futurists like the Google engineer Ray Kurzweil preach about imminent human immortality.
So a religion of AI that piggybacks on digital capitalism is a plausible next step in the evolution of religion, Kroker says.
He compares it to the late 1800s, when after centuries of people seeing life as bound up in supernatural affairs, suddenly a rival appeared — the human. This is what Nietzsche meant by “God is dead.”
“The human goes forth, lives technologically, and doesn’t have to rely on simply belief in Christianity, but is prepared to stake everything on his ability to be adaptive and struggle for existence,” Kroker says. “And the 20th century bears all the scars of this.”
What separates Levandowski from the nerds I knew is this: his wacky ideas tend to come true
Today, however, the human has run its course. “The Way of the Future, Singularity theory, they’re all talking about the end of the traditional conception of the human. The human body has not been able to stand up under the pressure of technology. It’s been shattered,” Kroker says. “The 21st century will be the century of the post-human.”
As with the death of God, the historical death of the human is likely to be painful.
“We can’t ever remove the development of a new religion from its sociological context,” Boutros says. From its origin in West Coast digital culture and its proximity to American big business, she says, the religion of AI already seems to have a problem with elitism.
“Who gets to upload themselves? Who gets to have this digital existence, or any existence after death? It hasn’t always been conceived of as being for the everyday person.”
When he was interviewed by the New Yorker in 2013, Levandowski talked boldly about himself as “a first-mile kind of guy — the guy who rushes the beach at Normandy, then lets other people fortify it.”
Like his religion, that sort of talk invites skepticism, if not an eye-roll. But as the interviewer Burkhard Bilger wrote: “What separates Levandowski from the nerds I knew is this: his wacky ideas tend to come true.”