Anthony Levandowski makes an unlikely prophet. Dressed Silicon Valley-casual in jeans and flanked by a PR rep rather than cloaked acolytes, the engineer known for self-driving cars—and triggering a notorious lawsuit—could be unveiling his latest startup instead of laying the foundations for a new religion. But he is doing just that. Artificial intelligence has already inspired billion-dollar companies, far-reaching research programs, and scenarios of both transcendence and doom. Now Levandowski is creating its first church.
The new religion of artificial intelligence is called Way of the Future. It represents an unlikely next act for the Silicon Valley robotics wunderkind at the center of a high-stakes legal battle between Uber and Waymo, Alphabet's autonomous-vehicle company. Papers filed with the Internal Revenue Service in May name Levandowski as the leader (or "Dean") of the new religion, as well as CEO of the nonprofit corporation formed to run it.
The documents state that WOTF's activities will focus on "the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software." That includes funding research to help create the divine AI itself. The religion will seek to build working relationships with AI industry leaders and create a membership through community outreach, initially targeting AI professionals and "laypersons who are interested in the worship of a Godhead based on AI." The filings also say that the church "plans to conduct workshops and educational programs throughout the San Francisco/Bay Area beginning this year."
That timeline may be overly ambitious, given that the Waymo-Uber suit, in which Levandowski is accused of stealing self-driving car secrets, is set for an early December trial. But the Dean of the Way of the Future, who spoke last week with Backchannel in his first comments about the new religion and his only public interview since Waymo filed its suit in February, says he's dead serious about the project.
"What is going to be created will effectively be a god," Levandowski tells me in his modest mid-century home on the outskirts of Berkeley, California. "It's not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?"
During our three-hour interview, Levandowski made it absolutely clear that his choice to make WOTF a church rather than a company or a think tank was no prank.
"I wanted a way for everybody to participate in this, to be able to shape it. If you're not a software engineer, you can still help," he says. "It also removes the ability for people to say, 'Oh, he's just doing this to make money.'" Levandowski will receive no salary from WOTF, and while he says that he might consider an AI-based startup in the future, any such business would remain completely separate from the church.
"The idea needs to spread before the technology," he insists. "The church is how we spread the word, the gospel. If you believe [in it], start a conversation with someone else and help them understand the same things."
Levandowski believes that a change is coming—a change that will transform every aspect of human existence, disrupting employment, leisure, religion, the economy, and possibly decide our very survival as a species.
"If you ask people whether a computer can be smarter than a human, 99.9 percent will say that's science fiction," he says. " Actually, it's inevitable. It's guaranteed to happen."
Levandowski has been working with computers, robots, and AI for decades. He started with robotic Lego kits at the University of California at Berkeley, went on to build a self-driving motorbike for a DARPA competition, and then worked on autonomous cars, trucks, and taxis for Google, Otto, and Uber. As time went on, he saw software tools built with machine learning techniques surpassing less sophisticated systems—and sometimes even humans.
"Seeing tools that performed better than experts in a variety of fields was a trigger [for me]," he says. "That progress is happening because there's an economic advantage to having machines work for you and solve problems for you. If you could make something one percent smarter than a human, your artificial attorney or accountant would be better than all the attorneys or accountants out there. You would be the richest person in the world. People are chasing that."