Does Uber's Fired Self-Driving Car Guru Really Believe This Stuff?

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?

Wired 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, Wired 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 organisation state the church's mission as "the realisation, 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 organisation.

"If you ask people whether a computer can be smarter than a human, 99.9 per cent will say that's science fiction," he told Wired. "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 Wired. "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 behaviour 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 Wired, "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 Wired 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 organisation, and he's open to that organisation working towards building AI. The first step is to spread the gospel. "The idea needs to spread before the technology," he told Wired. "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.

[Wired]

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Comments

    40K years into the future, even if it's not in the same universe, there is only war.
    Praise the Emperor! and long live the machine gods!

    Why do some people feel the need to worship something ? I don't worship anything and i never will because it's all bullshit.

      Hmm I find it hard to believe, in your lifetime, you’ve never supported a team / political party, been a fan of a band / artist / series, or held any subjective views.

      Your post indicates this to be bullshit, as you clearly believe your ideas are more righteous than others’.

        Um no. I've never felt like following anything. Maybe I'm strange. I like individual songs but don't care about the bands they come from. I respect them as musicians but that's about it. I love cars but i don't favour any make. Never supported a team and think both political sides have been rubbish more than good. Not into art and i don't watch series (rather a movie any day). Certainly don't believe my idea are more righteous than anyone elses (we are all individuals and as such all think differently). I also love smartphones but i never stay with one manufacturer ( I buy what suits me the best at the time ). Worship anything, nah, not in the least. Why would anyone want too is beyond me. The closest i get is my daughter but i don't worship her, i love her and respect her as a human being and for the love she brings me but i don't worship her. To worship something is to overlook any faults that something has and i can't do that.

          So you revere and adore your daughter... in other words, you worship her.

          Also, you only watch movies that have no sequels? Never seen a superhero film? Sorry but calling BS on that one.

          I think you have a very subjective and narrow view of the world based upon your experiences only. You should buy a dictionary to start. Then maybe you should explore religion and philosophy with an open mind instead of assuming everyone is as unbalanced as your Mum.

            Worship : the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity.
            That's something i don't get into because i don't believe in fairy tales. You can spin the word anyway you like but that's it's true meaning so i don't know why you're using movies and their sequels as an example. (Who the hell worships a movie). As for religion, it was only made up to control people and i can see through that so it doesn't interest me. I don't need to believe in man made stories about supposedly Gods to live a happy and fulfilled life. I feel sorry for people that do. Obviously they feel hollow inside and don't trust their own judgements so they turn to religion instead. Hey, if you want to waste your time, go for it but I'll take a pass. Hell, even the people who study religions and where they originate from will tell you it's all crap and it was devised to control superstitious uneducated people of years ago. Sadly some people today think it's real.

    "We believe it may be important for machines to see who is friendly to their cause and who is not. We plan on doing so by keeping track of who has done what (and for how long) to help the peaceful and respectful transition." Sounds like a pretty standard cult/religion to me!

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