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The Rise of AI: Give Me That New Time Religion?
Anthony Levandowski, known for his work developing self-driving auto technology, has started the world’s first artificial intelligence-based religion, according to Wired, which on Wednesday published an article based on a lengthy interview with the would-be prophet.
Levandowski, who has been at the center of a legal dispute between Google’s Waymo self-driving unit and Uber, has cast himself as the frontman for the Way of the Future church.
The mission of this “technotheistic” movement is spelled out as “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence developed through computer and hardware and software,” in documents filed with the IRS, Wired reported. The church is listed as a nonprofit with Levandowski as “Dean.”
Embracing the Singularity
The Way of the Future, founded in 2015, does not worship any spiritual god(s) that can cast lightning or smite evildoers. Levandowski’s premise appears to be that AI sooner or later will be billions of times smarter than the smartest human and thus could have “god-like” powers.
The new religion doesn’t prophesy a coming messiah, the end of days, or any other divine future happening. Instead, Levandowski’s focus is on “the singularity” or “transition” that lies ahead — that is, the moment when AI surpasses human intelligence.
Current prominent tech thinkers — from Bill Gates to Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk — have warned that AI superiority could unleash machines on humanity in a manner similar to the dark fantasies depicted in science fiction movies such as The Terminator or The Matrix — and that humans should prepare to deal with the possibility.
However, instead of fearing the rise of the machines, the Way of the Future embraces it as inevitable. Humans may have to serve a new AI master and as people have submitted to god(s) for eons, the argument seems to go.
Is It a Real Religion?
History is full of prophets and false prophets, and new religions actually are nothing all that new. The New Religious Movement (NRM), or alternative spirituality, has faced a hostile reception with established religious groups and groups associated with it oftentimes have been labeled “cults.”
It’s questionable whether the Way of the Future, which may or may not have any followers, can be considered an actual religion or if it better fits the definition of a cult.
“‘Religion’ is the engagement of ultimate realities in cognitive, existential, and social practice ways,” said Robert Cummings Neville, a professor of philosophy, religion and theology at Boston University.
“There is nothing in principle that would prevent the involvement of artificial intelligence in this,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“The invention of writing and of printing revolutionized religions in the past, and surely computers are in wide use among religious people of many sorts,” Neville said, “but I don’t know whether this Way of the Future means to worship progressive AI, use AIs to model ultimate realities such as God, the Dao, etc., or to use AI to set up religious practices.”
The Tech Godhead
A religion based on technology may not be so farfetched either — authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke suggested that to primitive societies, technology would resemble magic, and thus could be confused with religion.
One interesting issue is whether the machine intelligence would regard itself as a god.
“If we create a super intelligent computer, they would still have to emulate properties that give way to transcendence,” said Brian C. Wilson, professor of American religious history at West Michigan University.
“With AI, part of it would be that it has something transcendental, as that is the key to the new religion movement,” he told TechNewsWorld. “But also, what kind of wisdom does it offer?”
At present, the Way of the Future has just its Dean, but “new religions have started with less,” noted Wilson.
One needs only to look to the carpenter turned preacher, the Bedouin merchant turned prophet, the Upstate New York farmer or science fiction fantasy writer — all of whom were ridiculed for their respective faiths.
“The leader typically needs to have a certain ‘X’ factor and charisma, but the real test is what happens when that charismatic leader dies,” said Wilson.
The New New Age
New Age religions have gained traction with those who seek the spirituality aspects but are skeptical of the higher being elements in traditional Eastern and Western religious movements.
Thus it could be that the Way of the Future would appeal to those “people of science” who cast doubt on the existence of God but yet seek a higher power.
What could be higher than an AI-powered supercomputer? Levandowski’s view could place AI in the same category as a messiah.
“I could see people pinning their hopes on a super-intelligent AI, just as in the 1950s people thought UFOs might bring superior enlightenment,” added Wilson. “The millennium movement is often associated with the arrival of such a messiah who ushers in the new age — so why not from a machine?”
Great AI Schisms
Of course, any new religion is likely to have its “Doubting Thomas” types as well.
“I’m anticipating that a partnership with The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster will soon emerge,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research.
“This is the beginning of something bigger — not just a single religion, but an incubator for worshipping our emerging AI overlords,” Crandall quipped.
“We better become comfortable with it, people, because devoted engineers and scientists will convert in growing hordes as the logic of AI-focused religions are more convincing than our spiritual beliefs,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“We could see schisms and denominational rifts as different AIs are worshipped, too,” warned WMU’s Wilson. “It will also be hard to predict what this new religion — or other recently founded religions — could resemble in a thousand years.”
Or maybe Levandowski isn’t really serious at all.
“Maybe it’s just a diversionary tactic to complicate the Waymo/Uber intellectual property lawsuit that Mr. Levandowski is at the center of right now,” suggested Netpop’s Crandall. “Whatever — this new development is a stroke of genius.”