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Anthony Levandowski, one of the leaders in autonomous driving technology, is planning to create a new deity for humanity based on artificial intelligence. Is that a good thing?

Autonomous Vehicles

Scenes From The Twilight Zone: Creating An Artificial Intelligence God

Anthony Levandowski, one of the leaders in autonomous driving technology, is planning to create a new deity for humanity based on artificial intelligence. Is that a good thing?

There are still a few older Americans who can remember Rod Serling looking into the camera at the start of an episode of The Twilight Zone and saying in his sonorous voice, “Imagine if you will….” But even Serling, with his uncanny ability to peer into the future and explore the unthinkable and unknowable, could never imagine Anthony Levandowski’s latest endeavor — creating a new God based on artificial intelligence.

The Way Of The Future

artificial intelligence religionIn 2015, Levandowski established a religious nonprofit corporation called Way Of The Future. Its stated mission? “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.” Whoa. Is it tinfoil hat time or what?

So, who is this Anthony Levandowski character? In 2008, while working on the Google Maps program, he occupied himself in his spare time by building a self-driving Toyota Prius. His supervisors at Google were initially skeptical, but after he showed them how his Prius could deliver a pizza without the help of a human driver, Google bought his startup business and assigned him to work in its secretive X division, dedicated to what it called “moonshot” projects.

One of those moonshots was the Google Car project, a program designed to create the hardware and software needed to build vehicles that would have true Level 5 autonomous driving capability.

Leaving Google For Greener Pastures

The Google Car program sputtered along for years but was ultimately upstaged by Elon Musk and his Autopilot system. Distraught at what he perceived to be the glacial pace of progress at Google, Levandowski quit at the end of 2015 and formed his own self-driving startup known as Otto. (We first wrote about Levandowski in 2008, but his shift to Otto is where our coverage really picked up.) The new company focused its attention on self-driving trucks and gained notoriety a year ago when it successfully delivered a tractor-trailer load of Budweiser beer autonomously.

Otto was purchased by Uber shortly after it was created for $680 million, but there is more to that story. Google’s self driving division is now called Waymo. It sued Levandowski and Uber early this year, claiming that Levandowski pirated 14,000 pages of proprietary information prior to his departure and used it to create Otto.

Waymo claims those documents are the basis for Uber’s own self-driving car effort. Levandowski may have a new vision of God, but his concept of ethics appears to be flawed, if you believe Google / Waymo. Much more on that story is here.

We Shape Our Tools

Marshall McLuhan once offered this bit of wisdom: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” The tidal wave of new digital tools are bound to have an impact on humans and the entities they worship.

“That is why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands and peasants fantasized about different paradises, and why the revolutionary technologies of the 21st century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds,” says author Yuval Noah Harari.

Religion & Technology

Religions must keep up with the technological advancements of the day or they become irrelevant and unable to answer or understand the quandaries facing their disciples, he maintains. That seems especially true in the rarefied air of Silicon Valley, where the notion of  “The Singularity” — a belief that machines will eventually lead to a superhuman intelligence beyond the ability of humans to comprehend — is prevalent among the tech community.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that soon humans will be able to upload copies of their brains, creating a form of digital immortality. Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are less optimistic. They believe that artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to humanity.

Summoning The Demon

“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon,” Musk said at the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Centennial Symposium in October 2014. “In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like — yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out.” He is a co-founder of Open AI, a company he hopes will sand some of the rough edges off The Singularity.

Christopher Benek, a pastor in Florida and founding chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association, argues that advanced AI is compatible with Christianity. It’s just another technology that humans have created under guidance from God that can be used for good or evil, he says. “I totally think that AI can participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes. Even if people don’t buy organized religion, they can buy into ‘do unto others’.”

Time To Dump That Old-Timey Religion?

Perhaps, given the history of religious history conflict in human history — England vs. Ireland, India vs. Pakistan, Iran vs. Iraq — a new religion based on computer algorithms will do less harm than the conventional versions.

And it’s not like religions don’t undergo change all the time. The Greeks believed the Sun God was towed across heaven every day in a chariot pulled by a team of white stallions. Guttenberg and his printing press made the Bible accessible to ordinary citizens, which seriously undermined the power of the established church. King James had his own version of the Bible written to support his world view. Joseph Smith gave the whole religion thing a new twist when he established the Mormon Church.

More recently, some radical new religious leaders have been less successful at inventing new religions — Jim Jones and David Koresh come to mind, not to mention that endearing power couple, Bo and Peep of Hale Bopp fame.

Who Decides What God Should Be?

Perhaps a new God rooted in artificial intelligence will be better able to inform humanity and guide it toward a higher purpose, one in which cooperation and mutual respect are predominant characteristics, rather than loathing those who speak differently, think differently, dress differently, or act differently.

But the issue is, someone has to write the algorithms that will form the basis for the new AI-based deity. Won’t the beliefs and biases of the person who performs that task necessarily leak over into the resulting coding? And is Anthony Levandowski, the fellow who reportedly helped himself to 14,000 pages of documents stored on Waymo’s computers on his way out the door, the fellow you would choose to write that code?

Perhaps if the programming could self-correct for arrogance, greed, jealousy, and all the other human foibles, the result would be worth it, especially if the result focused on preserving the earth rather than destroying it. Looking at the history of religion in civilization to date, you can make the argument that anything would be an improvement, once you wrap your head around the idea that the first teachings in the new AI religion will be found in the Book of Anthony.

Source: The Guardian

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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