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AI worship is not the answer | Data Driven

Anthony Levandowski has many accolades: Silicon Valley entrepreneur, former Google employee and self-driving car engineer. But, in 2015, he added religious organizer to his resume. 

Way of the Future — which over the past few years has both dissolved and been rebooted — is a church founded by Levandowski dedicated to the belief that AI will achieve God-like capacities. 

Annika Morris | Senior Graphic Artist

Levandowski is not the only person to raise AI and algorithms to a concerning deity level. 

In a 2017 tell-all interview with Mark Harris of WIRED, Levandowski, now “Dean” of Way of the Future, said, “If there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?”

The church aims to hold workshops, build relationships between humans and AI via church membership and create funding opportunities for AI research that will aid in the ultimate goal of an AI god.

“In the future, if something is much, much smarter, there’s going to be a transition as to who is actually in charge,” Levandowski said to WIRED. “What we want is the peaceful, serene transition of control of the planet from humans to whatever. And to ensure that the ‘whatever’ knows who helped it get along.”

What always strikes me as problematic about thinkers like Levandowski who equate AI to God is not necessarily their founding principles — after all, AI does have a lot of potential, and there are a lot of unknowns that come with it. 

However, I think people like Levandowski sensationalize their approach to AI and make it into a gimmick — something that is much more likely to be either weird, ignored by the general public or both. 

Bryan Johnson is another entrepreneur who falls into this category for me. He’s on a quest to unlock immortality, which has led him to live an insanely controlled and categorized life of blood transfusions, erection-tracking and the consumption of over a hundred vitamin supplements a day. He also hired a team of medical specialists to monitor his health. 

Johnson believes that with the advent of more advanced and powerful AI technology, humans will become essentially useless, so we need to focus on the one goal left — not dying. He’s dedicated to using algorithms to completely optimize his longevity, using his body as a science experiment. 

“Can somebody who’s willing to say yes to an algorithm, like myself, stay the same age biologically? Can we achieve the fountain of youth?” Johnson said in a Vice interview with Maxwell Strachan. 

Except, he’s not just experimenting on himself. He’s built up a community of followers who are on the quest for a longer life, and he even has his own line of products to help them. Such products include vegan meals, various supplements and and even an olive oil, which he’s considering rebranding as “Snake Oil” as a little jab to the nonbelievers. 

His followers also meet up for activities like hiking and meditating wearing “Don’t Die” t-shirts. 

Both Johnson and Levandowski place AI on a pedestal, but they don’t stop there. They create these cult-like organizations, combining fear, paranoia and probably a healthy dose of narcissism, considering just how much shock appeal both groups have. 

Both groups have also fallen under fire for not being very credible. Levandowski, for example, almost got sent to jail for stealing trade secrets from Google before being pardoned by former President Donald Trump, and his supposed co-founders don’t want much to do with his church. 

Lior Ron, a previous business partner of Levandowski, said he was surprised to see his name listed as the CFO of Way of the Future despite having no association with the organization, while another anonymous source told WIRED that Levandowski’s “robot church” seemed like “it was a nerdy joke or PR stunt” when Levandowski asked if he wanted to be a co-founder.

Johnson’s work, on the other hand, has been compared to a glorified eating disorder, employs questionable scientific methods and earns him money. Plus, of course, it’s completely unattainable for the average person given the associated costs and time commitment of Johnson’s lifestyle. 

I think it’s a good idea to prepare for the next stage of AI. This is a relatively new technology with the capacity for many different innovations. And experts like Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking are on the same page with Johnson and Levandowski that a highly intelligent, superhuman AI is in our future. 

I doubt that this is the right way to deal with the existentialism of AI, though. These organizations feel intentionally subversive and divisive, and both the groups and the founders are riddled with enough flaws to make me question their validity. 

We absolutely should keep in mind the vast potential and pitfalls that come with AI innovation. But, I don’t believe being fanatical or polarizing is the solution. 

Worship can become a slippery slope — how long before we descend into mindless religious fervor instead of focusing on actionable solutions? 

Preemptively raising AI onto a pedestal through organizations created by fallible leaders might just force us to lose our humanity too soon. 

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