Anthony Levandowski used to work for Uber, developing driverless cars. Whilst Google’s own cars are proving that this technology could provide a safer – not to mention more relaxing – driving experience, for Uber, the technology could mean that the company’s self-employed humans would eventually find themselves out of the job.
This struggle between man and machine goes as far back as the industrial revolution, or perhaps much further. Every time an innovation occurs, a job is reduced. New jobs arise, but unfortunately the programmers of these driverless cars are unlikely to be employed from the same group as the drivers themselves, and thus the battle continues, the same as it has always been.
With the development of increasingly intuitive AI, technology has the potential to replace human work like never before. Even without the traditional, science fiction idea of robotics (an idea that decades of authors and scientists have debated and warned against, and yet we develop further every day), our computer systems and production lines are taking robotics and AI to ever greater levels.
However, in Levandowski’s latest project, he is taking this idea even further, looking to replace something other, and some would argue far larger, than human labour: God.
“Science vs religion” is an old cliché, when in fact many scientists and people of faith overlap, or see little need to be at odds. However, in an age of knowledge and data, some feel that the need for God has become extinct. Levandowski, it seems, is taking this thought to an odd conclusion – that data can very literally replace God, in the form of an AI creation that he has openly stated he intends to be worshiped as a godhead.
The proposal has already been met with condemnation and words of warning, from the general public and notable figures alike. Elon Musk, technology visionary and renowned founder of Tesla, tweeted that Levandowski “should be on the list of people who should absolutely *not* be allowed to develop digital superintelligence”. If you have a Christian biblical background, you mind might be jumping to Moses’ followers fashioning themselves a bull of gold to worship when God seemed absent. If you have spiritualist leanings or an academic interest in such matters, you will know that developing and selecting entities to worship has been a natural part of human behavior since we developed the ability to ask questions about the world around us. However, whether you are religious, spiritualist or an atheist, putting faith in an electronic creation that can learn and answer back should set off a whole parade of red flags – especially as this ‘god’ would need to be programmed by humans.
Mr Levandowski set up an organisation called ‘Way of the Future’ in September 2015. Its mission statement is: “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.” It sounds like L.Ron Hubbard’s legacy, if you can call it that without a sour taste in your mouth, will have to start competing for its science-enamored followers! It certainly has a similarly cult-like feel to it.
Mr Musk has warned against the dangers of AI many times, and he has a long line of scientific thinkers behind him supporting this opinion. Earlier this year, he described AI as “a fundamental existential risk for human civilisation”. Several years earlier, in summer 2014, his fears were similar: “Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable.”
Despite concerns, the mission to teach AI to learn continues, with experts predicting that AI will surpass humans at all tasks within 45 years. Previous articles on the debate, such as John Brandon’s piece in VentureBeat from October this year, have theorized that if AI can not only learn, but teach, then whether through Levandowski’s efforts or not, an electronic, self-proclaimed god is likely to evolve – and even more troublingly, is likely to gain followers. The article points out that, on top of humanity’s historical quest for gods, magic and wisdom outside of ourselves, we tend to put our trust in electronic systems that claim to know more than we do (for example, Google Maps or an electronic fact-check). Since we developed writing, we have even become psychologically more likely to believe something if it is written down.
With these patterns well established in our history, is it so unlikely that people would turn to an AI system for religious guidance? People search for signs in prayer and divination, with many putting great stock in the power of, say, tarot cards, because there is a sense of getting a reply that can be deciphered. How much more so, then, are we likely to respond to a computer that can give a literal response?
Whether the concept excites you or gives you chills Levandowski is clear in his aim. This in itself raises questions: in purposefully creating something greater than ourselves, is this a sign that humanity’s quest for knowledge and power has gone full circle – that we are tired of using science to be our own gods, and are instead using it hand over authority once more?
Receiving moral and spiritual guidance from a machine with no genuine understanding of these concepts is, quite rightly, a disturbing notion. Yet, much though figures like Elon Musk are concerned about this proposed cult (and let’s face it, this definitely smells of ‘cult’), it is certainly a psychological curiosity, and shows that no matter how advanced we become, and how independent we feel technology has made us, that human craving to turn to something outside of ourselves remains.
In this holiday season, perhaps it is time to reflect on our various gods, and to focus on the distinctly human lessons that they teach us – compassion, empathy, generosity. It is unlikely that our electronic gods will ever understand these things, and if sci fi is anything to go by, it is the strength we will need when the AI gets out of hand!
Merry Christmas, and over the holiday season, remember that there are important things about us that we can never replace with machines.