Anthony Levandowski is the artificial intelligence whiz at the heart of the nasty legal dispute between Waymo and Uber. Following his unceremonious firing from Uber, he’s been keeping himself busy by founding a church based on the idea of worshipping a future AI deity. As he shares more details about his philosophy, we have to ask: Is this guy for real?
Backchannel first reported on the existence of Levandowski’s church, Way of the Future, back in September, but the piece was largely a profile of his rise to prominence in Silicon Valley. His early obsession with robots led to an education at UC Berkeley, early participation in DARPA’s self-driving vehicle Grand Challenge, the development of Lidar navigation systems, and a top position in Google’s self-driving car unit which is now called Waymo. Things went wrong when he left Google to found his own company Otto, which was quickly snatched up by Uber. Waymo accused Levandowski of using its patents and trade secrets in his work for Uber and that court drama is still going on. But Levandowski doesn’t want to talk about that. He wants to talk about his church.
On Wednesday, Backchannel published a follow-up piece based on a three-hour interview with Levandowski in which he elaborated on the details of the Way of the Future. In broad strokes, he thinks society should just go ahead and raise the white flag in surrender to our future robot overlords. Documents filed with the IRS for official recognition as a religious organization state the church’s mission as “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.” Levandowski is listed as the “Dean” of the church and CEO of its non-profit organization.
“If you ask people whether a computer can be smarter than a human, 99.9 percent will say that’s science fiction,” he told Backchannel. “Actually, it’s inevitable. It’s guaranteed to happen.” But rather than sound an alarm about the enormous responsibility that this decades-long process will require, he wants people to go ahead and begin accepting their place as inferior to the AI Godhead. He seems to think that everyone should just prepare themselves to give it their full religious devotion. He plans to start small, conducting workshops and gathering worshipers like a latter-day John the Baptist—urging the world that the Messiah is coming whether you like it or not.
Levandowski is already building up his own vernacular for his church, starting with calling “the singularity” the “Transition.” The singularity is the hypothesized point at which an artificial intelligence will hit a milestone of self-improvement and rapidly surpass human intelligence. While prominent figures like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates are urging the world to anticipate this moment and start creating solutions for controlling the monster we create, Levandowski thinks it’s just inevitable that we’ll serve the machine. “Do you want to be a pet or livestock?” he asks Backchannel. “We give pets medical attention, food, grooming, and entertainment. But an animal that’s biting you, attacking you, barking and being annoying? I don’t want to go there.”
For an engineer, Levandowski’s view is surprisingly binary when it comes to this problem. Would you rather be a pet or livestock? Personally, I’d rather be neither, and I’m not buying that it’s already too late to avoid that outcome. He threw out another scenario to illustrate his point:
“Chaining it isn’t going to be the solution, as it will be stronger than any chains you could put on,” he says. “And if you’re worried a kid might be a little crazy and do bad things, you don’t lock them up. You expose them to playing with others, encourage them and try to fix it. It may not work out, but if you’re aggressive toward it, I don’t think it’s going to be friendly when the tables are turned.”
Sure, that sounds kind of reasonable, but it leaves out the fact that you don’t worship this problem child. You don’t just give the rambunctious young human your undying devotion in hopes that it won’t throw a temper tantrum. You give the child positive reinforcement and set reasonable boundaries. You work with behavior specialists to get the best advice you can, and you take the long view in knowing that the kid will hopefully grow out of it with the proper attention. Levandowski not only wants to throw out Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, he’s going full-on Aleister Crowley with some “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” bullshit.
But the question remains: Is this guy serious? According to Backchannel, “Levandowski made it absolutely clear that his choice to make WOTF a church rather than a company or a think tank was no prank.” And one of his former engineer colleagues told Backchannel in September:
“He had this very weird motivation about robots taking over the world—like actually taking over, in a military sense,” said the same engineer. “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.”
So, yeah. It seems like he’s kind of serious. But of course, Levandowski is going through a rough spell at the moment. He was one of the most coveted engineers in the tech world when it comes to self-driving cars. These days he’s persona non grata, as the Waymo and Uber dispute grinds through the system. While he’s understood to have made hundreds of millions of dollars between his stint at Google and the sale of Otto, he’s a true creature of Silicon Valley. That is to say, he’s the kind of guy who seeks money, power, and wants to reshape the world around his own personal eccentricities. That’s why I’d say he shouldn’t be taken as a joke. Some nerds told everybody that PCs and the internet would be fundamental to every facet of life and they were proven right. We haven’t done the best job of adapting to that rearrangement of society so far. If AI really does hit some sort of singularity moment, Levandowski’s vision of how we deal with it seems pretty dystopian to me.
It’s also possible that he sees this church thing as a wild way to get back in the AI game without having to convince an employer that he’s worth taking a risk on. He insists that he won’t take a salary from the church but he’s still essentially talking about bringing layman and experts together into some sort of organization, and he’s open to that organization working towards building AI. The first step is to spread the gospel. “The idea needs to spread before the technology,” he told Backchannel. “If you believe [in it], start a conversation with someone else and help them understand the same things.” Eek.
Maybe the simplest explanation for Levandowski’s newest obsession is that it’s a great way to avoid talking about the lawsuit while still keeping his name associated with AI advancements. He refused to answer any questions about the suit in today’s profile. And even though he has plenty of money to live a life of comfort, he’s still facing possible criminal charges for trade secret theft. Say what you want about his religion, but it could certainly bolster a case for copping an insanity plea.
Update: We reached out to Levandowski to simply ask: Are you serious? A representative replied, “The response to your question is yes. He is serious.”