The man behind self-driving cars wants to create an AI god. Should we be worried?

  • The mad scientist who had a secret plan
  • He’s a man on fire – a doer, a maker, and a striver
  • Recent lawsuits sketch a picture of ethical challenges
  • Are we heading toward a future in which we worship an AI god?

Anthony Levandowski is a polarising figure in Silicon Valley. Hailed as a “a once-in-a-generation intellect” by former business partners, this Berkeley grad and Google superstar was one of the minds behind the development of self-driving technology. But he’s also allegedly involved in a corporate espionage scandal, is well known for playing fast and loose with the rules, and is said by close associates to have embraced a future dominated by robotic overlords (no kidding)! He’s a man with genius, vision, and drive – and just two years ago, he filed paperwork to start his own church, devoted to the worship of an AI god. This has Elon Musk worried, and he recently tweeted that Levandowski should be “on the list of people who should absolutely *not* be allowed to develop digital superintelligence.”

The mad scientist who had a secret plan

Everyone knows the stories about the mad scientist, the genius who’s a bit off the rails and whose creations can threaten the world. It’s rare that this happens in real-life, however, but in this case, it just might! Levandowski is a man with a plan, a man always scheming. An engineer who worked with him and who refuses to give his name tells a terrifying story. “He had this very weird motivation about robots taking over the world — like actually taking over, in a military sense. It was like he wanted to be able to control the world, and robots were the way to do that. He talked about starting a new country on an island. Pretty wild and creepy stuff. And the biggest thing is that he’s always got a secret plan, and you’re not going to know about it.”

 A man standing in front of two Otto’s self-driving trucks
Everyone knows the stories about the mad scientist, the genius who’s a bit off the rails and whose creations can threaten the world.

He’s a man on fire – a doer, a maker, and a striver

Levandowski is the kind of man who can set the world on fire – literally. A quick look at his rocket-like rise tells it all. Educated at Berkeley in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, he created a startup in his freshman year of college that was already earning a tidy $50,000 a year by the time he graduated. When other competitors in a Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) autonomous vehicle challenge worked on four-wheeled platforms, Levandowsky and his hand-picked team chose to develop a self-driving motorcycle called Ghostrider. And when Google was looking for talent to drive the future of its self-driving systems, they knew exactly who they needed. Working with some of the most brilliant minds in the business, people like Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, Levandowski is a doer, a maker, and a striver.


Recent lawsuits sketch a picture of ethical challenges

At each stage in his career, he’s demonstrated that he has the smarts to do tremendous things. He has the work-ethic, too – and his parents and friends describe a man who’ll work around the clock on an idea that fascinates him, a man exploding with inexhaustible energy. Already a millionaire many times over, having sold several of his companies for outrageous amounts, Levandowski’s drive and vigor now have him in trouble. What worries Musk – and others – is that Levandowski has more smarts than sense, more drive than deep understanding. He’s undeniably brilliant, but if recent allegations are true, he’s also ethically challenged and inclined toward a future in which humans serve machines.

The story of his ethical mis-steps is involved and murky at best. Simply put, Levandowski was a critical component of Google’s development of self-driving LiDAR systems. These programs were allegedly run by subsidiary companies to increase its distance from any catastrophic failures, such as traffic accidents in testing. At the time, Levandowski worked for Waymo, Google/Alphabet’s self-driving spin-off. They allege that he solicited engineers to leave and start a new company, Otto, run by him. In their lawsuit, Google/Waymo/Alphabet claim that he downloaded key documents describing its LiDAR systems, special laser sensors that create a 3D map the car uses to navigate. Otto’s designs, experts say, are virtually identical to the systems designed at Waymo, and when Uber – just weeks later – bought Otto, Levandowski effectively shared these stolen plans with Uber to help it develop its autonomous vehicles. The trial is set to start next month, and there’s word of possible criminal charges, too.

Are we heading toward a future in which we worship an AI god?

We don’t know the truth of it all yet, and Levandowski deserves his day in court. But if true, this saga tells the story of a man for whom normal limitations don’t apply. That has people worried. Elon Musk is well-known for his concern about artificial intelligence (AI). He warns that we aren’t paying enough attention, aren’t asking the right questions, and aren’t prepared for the day when machines can outthink human beings. While Levandowski embraces the Singularity, Musk is more cautious. And many in Silicon Valley think that the moment when AI outstrips human intelligence isn’t far off. Stephen Hawking is worried, too, lending weight to Musk’s concerns.

What might Levandowski do to further his vision of a future dominated by technology? Would he secretly develop general AI, a real artificial mind, rather than the limited smarts that run algorithms now? Levandowski could be an enabler of superintelligence, a prophet of his new god who doesn’t just announce his coming but makes it possible, too.

We know precious little about his new church, the “Way of the Future”. Levandowski sought tax-exempt status for his religious organisation, forcing a public tax filing, but little information is available beyond its street address. The only apparently solid data point we have is a statement of the church’s mission, to “develop and promote the realisation of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society”. That, more than anything, has people guessing, second-guessing, and worrying. As Zyana Guedim writes for EdgyLabs, Levandowski’s not just a tech guru – he’s a true believer in the godlike superiority of AI, proposing that it “ought to be worshiped”. Levandowski doesn’t just accept that AI might soon surpass human limitations, he ‘reveres’ this moment as the coming of an artificial god. And to the extent that he might bring this moment closer, encouraging super-human AI, Levandowski’s genius should have us all worried.

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