Ahead of the Curve: The AI Religion

News stories late last year breathlessly reported the founding of a new religion called “Way of the Future”—one that worships artificial intelligence (“AI”) as its godhead.

There is no punch line. This is not supposed to be a joke. That “O” in its acronym is important, and should not be omitted.

Lots of phenomena call themselves religions nowadays or are called that by others. You don’t necessarily need to worship a magic spirit that created the universe and consigns unbelievers to hell in order to be a religion. Some strains of Buddhism don’t have such a being, though others do. There’s a Jedi religion in the UK that’s growing rather nicely. Humanism used to call itself a religion. We don’t anymore, except when we do. Some scholars debate how closely the Crossfit exercise culture resembles a religion. When he’s not tossing footballs, Tom Brady put together a television series on “The Religion of Sports” that makes a compelling argument. (Frankly, the miracle of last year’s Superbowl comeback, watched live by millions, outranks all the hearsay miracles the Christians brag about.) Harry Potter, Facebook, and sci-fi have all been described as religions.

I’m sure scholars will disagree, but I think a religion has the following elements:

  • Reverence for something or other, material or otherwise.
  • A community focused on the reverence.
  • Guidelines for living related to the reverence.
  • Somebody making money off of the above. [Show me a religion where this doesn’t happen.]

What’s so off the wall about placing AI at the center of such an institution? At least we know it exists, which is more than we can say for Jupiter or Allah. We know its power is on the upswing, while that of Jesus and Yahweh seems to be on the wane. If you read or watch enough science fiction, you might even be persuaded that it could provide a kind of afterlife, once we figure out how to upload our consciousness into a computer.

According to the opening sentence of its website, “Way of the Future is about creating a peaceful and respectful transition of who is in charge of the planet from people to people + ‘machines.’” This is sophomoric. “People plus machines” have been in charge of just plain “people” since the first hominid bashed another over the head with a rock. All that’s happening now is that the machines people use are getting better and better, at what some argue is an exponential rate.

Where the creed gets more interesting is “We want to encourage machines to do things we cannot and take care of the planet in a way we seem not to be able to do so ourselves. We also believe that, just like animals have rights, our creation(s) (‘machines’ or whatever we call them) should have rights too when they show signs [of] intelligence.”

But machines are already “showing signs of intelligence.” Machines that beat human champions at chess, Jeopardy, and Go have intelligence, as do machines that diagnose illness and create interesting music and visual art. That by itself doesn’t mean they should have rights. They should only have rights to the extent that giving them rights is beneficial to humankind, a case which is far from being made. It’s my species, and I’m sticking with it.

This position could land me in trouble, because of the ominous warning in the statement: “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.” The next time my computer crashes, will it be because of a random glitch or because my name was on the wrong list?

That’s pretty much it for the substance of the new religion. Don’t bother re-reading the last few paragraphs to see if you missed something important—you didn’t. As with other religions, what’s most interesting here is not the wacko ideas themselves, but the con artists who make money exploiting them. In this case, the God expert is Mr. Anthony Levandowski. Before launching his religion, Mr. Levandowski was in the news for being fired by Uber after he reportedly stole trade secrets from his former employer, Google. While working on cars at Google, he secretly started several other driverless-car businesses through a series of shell companies, some of which sold technology to Google and its competitors, according to Google’s court filings. He has refused to testify in the criminal probe against him thus far, citing the Fifth Amendment. Some have speculated that by calling himself a church, Mr. Levandowski will be able to continue doing whatever he does with a powerful shield against nasty IRS audits. His church has already been granted tax-exempt status.

One analyst speculates that “Levandowski could simply be out to bilk the gullible narcissists of Silicon Valley.” His ambition may be grander than that, though, when he says things like, “This is a radical new idea that’s pretty scary, and evidence has shown that people who pursue radical ideas don’t always get received well. At some point, maybe there’s enough persecution that [WOTF] justifies having its own country.” Moses did it. Mohammed did it. Those worked out well, didn’t they?

Elon Musk, who prefers getting things done to engaging in religious babble, said Levandowski belongs “on the list of people who should absolutely *not* be allowed to develop digital superintelligence.”

There are reasons to suspect that AI may be an extraordinarily powerful new tool, perhaps affecting humanity as profoundly as fire-making once did. It may result in an altogether new species, a human-machine combination that Yuval Harari calls Homo Deus. But the last thing we need now is to turn it into a religion, to play on people’s emotions and longings to make them automatically “pro-AI” rather than thoughtfully neutral. There are good parts to AI and bad parts, just like there were with fire-making. Responsible humanists need to dispassionately consider and evaluate the novel questions AI creates. We do not need to treat it as a “Godhead” commanding our reverence, whose will is funneled through a well-paid human expert. We do not need a religion as a substitute for rational thought.