Silicon Valley’s New Religion Is About As Serious As You’d Think
It’s almost decision time in the corporate comedy of errors between Uber and Google’s parent company, Alphabet. For 10 months, they’ve repeatedly embarrassed each other in a fight over self-driving car technology. Alphabet says that a key former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, took trade secrets from Alphabet to Uber as part of a $700 million acquisition. The dispute finally goes to trial next month, after a year’s worth of embarrassments that included a secret shredding session, a tour de force of “I don’t recalls” by Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Larry Page, and an entrepreneurial bromance that helped cost Uber CEO Travis Kalanick his job.
For now, the weirdness continues. Last week, Levandowski emerged from seclusion to announce he had decided to start a new religion. He’s appointed himself “dean” of a new order, Way of the Future, which is dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence developed through computer hardware and software,” according to IRS filings discovered by Wired.
Levandowski’s foundational principle is that computers are going to become smarter than humans, smart enough that we should think of them as gods to be worshipped. That way, he argues, the machines will be likelier to be nice to us when they inevitably make us their slaves. According to Wired, Levandowski expects the church to “eventually have a gospel (called The Manual), a liturgy, and probably a physical place of worship.”
The dean started to get serious about his new path after Uber fired him in May, but not enough to persuade his supposed fellow travelers. Levandowski listed Lior Ron, the co-founder of his self-driving startup Otto, as Way of the Future’s chief financial officer. Ron told Wired he has “no association with this entity.” Preach, brother.
While Levandowski’s move seems painfully craven, there’s also a certain poetry to it. At a time when many of Silicon Valley’s most powerful techies have taken an introspective turn—apologizing for past mistakes, handing out money to Midwesterners, and, at least in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, finding conventional religion—Levandowski’s new faith could disrupt the hand-wringing. Instead of urging his peers to put down their devices and to think deeply about their place in the world, he suggests they cut out the middleman and turn their smartphones into gods.
As Mark Bergen and I wrote in our Bloomberg Businessweek story earlier this year, Levandowski is a brilliant schemer, a guy who managed to bring driverless cars to market partly by ignoring corporate norms. 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. (Both Levandowski and Uber have denied wrongdoing.)
It’s tempting to see Levandowski’s new religion—which, thanks to an IRS ruling, will enjoy favorable tax treatment—as another way he can sneak in some self-driving research while the trial plays out. In an interview on Friday, he framed Way of the Future as more of an advocacy project for artificial intelligence than a formal spiritual doctrine. “It’s not like we’re sitting around in a room wearing robes praying to a laptop in the middle,” he said. “We just want to educate people so they’re not fearful of machines.”
Way of the Future might develop new technologies, too, Levandowski said. But anything it creates will be free for anyone to use. “It’s not about scheming or making an angle,” he said. “The angle is philosophical.”
I called Edward Zelinsky, a professor at Cardozo Law School and the author of Taxing the Church, to gauge how seriously we should take Levandowski’s new faith. To my surprise, Zelinsky said there was no reason to assume the would-be prophet is just after profit. While Way of the Future will enjoy a handful of tax benefits (no IRS audits, etc.) as a religious not-for-profit, Zelinsky said the modest advantages aren’t worth having to tell friends or jurors that your god is a bot. “If it is a strategy, it isn’t a very good one,” he said.
The designation could be more valuable in the unlikely event that Levandowski is charged criminally for the alleged trade secrets theft. Judges often order people convicted of computer crimes to refrain from using computers as a condition of their probation or parole, but that punishment would be hard to contemplate for the high priest of computer worship. As farfetched as this sounds, it might work, says Daniel Hemel, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “Sincerely held but wacky beliefs still warrant protection,” Hemel says.
Most important for Levandowski will be the freedom to start another self-driving car company and continue his life’s work. “Probably, yes,” he said when asked whether he’d start a new robotics business once the trial is over. “Why wouldn’t I do something fun again?”
That could mean that after the trial is finally over, both Uber and Alphabet’s self-driving car programs could find themselves up against the guy who arguably ruined 2017 for both of them. Like I said, there’s poetry here.