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Pets or Livestock?

Behold the Pascal’s wager preached by our brave new cyber-elite

Say you’re an overprivileged tech bro looking for a challenge. Sure, you could take another crack at vanquishing the Grim Reaper, or some variation of a seasteading Utopia. Or you could hack a bit further at the privatized space travel obsessions that put such a spring in Jeff Bezos’s step, or join up with Elon Musk’s transparently phallic quest for a continent-straddling super train. But honestly, doesn’t the whole moonshot shtick feel a little played out? How many times can you plausibly disrupt the basic fabric of our shared being, after all? And really, why bother engineering a pluperfect human future when it looks like the cryptocurrency fad alone will plunge the global climate into irremediable squalor? At some point, the fever dream of a quantum software-enabled cosmic upgrade simply becomes a sick cosmic joke.

Ah, but fear not, energetic code-happy millionaires: the dream is not yet dead. Anthony Levandowski, an engineering wizard behind the driverless car, has stepped forward to bring the ethos of innovation-at-all-costs to its logical culmination, by marshalling it into the basis of a bona fide religion. Behold, O weary pilgrim, the church of the Way of the Future; bow down before the burning bush of artificial intelligence, and proclaim the glory of the One True God!

The gnostic faith, in strikingly parallel outline, has long beguiled the tech power elite.

Oh, scoffers and cynics will note that Levandowski’s startup carries with it a strong whiff of desperate opportunism. Yes, the prophet of the Future’s Way began just as his own personal future was beclouded with a gigantic lawsuit alleging that Levandowksi had purloined Google’s intellectual property when he brought his driverless-car portfolio over to Uber from Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Indeed, as Wired scribe Mark Harris notes, Levandowski drew up the bylaws for the fledgling church the day after Uber wrote him a letter last May informing him that he’d be fired if he failed to cooperate with the company’s investigation of Alphabet’s complaint.(As he was, two weeks later.) And yes, while he was at Google, Levandowski created a suite of shell companies to serve as repositories for his tech—and in a suitably daring twist, even got Google to pay out handsome subcontracting fees to the paper entities. (In the run-up to next week’s scheduled trial for the Google-Uber suit, both Levandowski and Uber deny any wrongdoing.) It takes no great stretch of the imagination to suppose that the Way of the Future might be little more than a way for Levandowski, already a multi-millionaire, to park his riches in a tax-free structure, in the great tradition of other Golden State visionaries.

But as any ardent Roy Moore supporter in Birmingham will tell you, God selects imperfect vessels to work out his will on the stage of global history. The least we could do, in fairness to the prophet, is to examine the basic catechism of the brave new cyberfaith. It first bears noting that Levandowski abjures the mantel of prophecy; his formal role in the Way of the Future church, according to its IRS filings, is “dean.” And that seems entirely fitting, since the church, like Silicon Valley at large, is devoted to the mystic worship of intelligence as the great motive force of Creation. The simple, syllogistic brunt of the WOTF gospel is that the development of serious, reality-bending artificial intelligence—“strong AI” in the argot of cybernetics adepts—is an already settled historical inevitability. And since the moment of Skynet-like sentience is already all but embedded in the coding protocols of the digital world, savvy humans had best start preparing for the millennial reign of the AI godhead now. Here’s how he explains the case to bow down before our AI overlords:

Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals and are able to build tools and apply rules. In the future, if something is much, much smarter, there’s going to be a transition as to who is actually in charge. What we want is the peaceful, serene transition of control of the planet from humans to whatever. And to ensure that the “whatever” knows who helped it get along.

The “whatever” in question will clearly possess the great primal reasoning powers of a God, Levandowski goes on to explain—which means that we, its human charges, will serve as a great body of nodal, just-in-time knowledge sherpas, dispensing an invaluable crowdsourced OS to the Universe’s new ruler. Small wonder that the church’s Scripture-in-the-making is termed “the Manual,” and that the quest for meaningful human experience in this scheme of things is downgraded into glorified concierge work:

Part of it being smarter than us means it will decide how it evolves, but at least we can decide how we act around it. I would love for the machine to see us as its beloved elders that it respects and takes care of. We would want this intelligence to say, “Humans should still have rights, even though I’m in charge.’’

In short order, though, the uplifting, exoticized talk of humans docenting the AI through its sovereign domain as respected tribal elders takes a darker turn, as Levandowski ponders the human prospect in this Matrix-like version of the singularity: “Do you want to be a pet or livestock?” he abruptly asks Harris. “We give pets medical attention, food, grooming, and entertainment. But an animal that’s biting you, attacking you, barking at you, and being annoying? I don’t want to go there.”

Daft and as brutally functionalist as such talk may be, it does fit squarely within a coherent spiritual tradition—the Christian heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics of the early Roman Empire saw themselves as bearers of a recondite but indispensable scheme of salvation, amid a welter of deluded, competing accounts of the human spiritual plight. Like today’s Silicon Valley elite, the Gnostics of the first century CE proposed that the true path to individual salvation resided in the acquisition of knowledge (or gnosis), which conveyed to the elect company of believers the terrible truth of human life: we inhabited an entirely false created order, the handiwork of a bumbling lesser god known as the Demiurge. As a corollary of this condition, virtually everything taught to us about our spiritual natures was backward. The serpent in the Garden of Eden, for example, didn’t deliver Adam and Eve into sinful temptation and mortality, work and painful childrearing; no, he was offering the true gnostic path to salvation, conveyed directly in the promise that tasting from the Tree of Knowledge would transform the hapless first humans into Gods. The debased scriptures of the Demiurge’s teaching made this quest for knowledge a byword of folly, sin, and blindness as a means of keeping lesser humans captive to the senseless, ordeal of mere earthly being. And it’s only by embracing the true teachings of the gnostic elect could believers ascend to their own appointed semidivine destiny, and escape this doomed, corrupt creation of death, ugly animal gratification, and mortal decay.

The gnostic faith, in strikingly parallel outline, has long beguiled the tech power elite. Indeed, Levandowski’s unthinking equation of intelligence with spiritual power—“Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals”—is unalloyed gnostic gospel. And the stark Manichean terms of his digitally minded update of Pascal’s wager—“Do you want to be a pet or livestock?”—resounds with the ur-gnostic disgust with the gross cosmic error of created being as the fallen world has come to experience it. Indeed, Levandowski dresses and talks like a surviving member of the mid-nineties Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, whose leaders persuaded their blandly attired SoCal adherents that the great mistake of created human history would be blessedly redeemed with the approach of the Hale–Bopp comet in 1997. (In a perfect twenty-first century epilogue to the cult’s unhinged gnostic career, the Heaven’s Gate saga is now being revived in a popular podcast.)

It is by now a taken-for-granted precept of all things tech that the forward march of human history is a sustained study in quantum cognitive improvement.

Likewise, the regimen of salvation sketched in the prospectus for Levandowski’s church is steeped in the gnostic substitution of elite learning techniques for more ritualized, debased brands of religious observance: “In its bylaws, WOTF states that it will undertake programs of research,” Harris writes, “including the study of how machines perceive their environment and exhibit cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.”

This may strike more conventional believers as a bizarre prescription for worship, but neither it nor Levandowski’s broader account of AI’s likely cognitive dominion over the human future is remotely fringe, when viewed against the backdrop of the deeply gnostic cultural dispensation of the digital age. After all, it is by now a taken-for-granted precept of all things tech that the forward march of human history is a sustained study in quantum cognitive improvement. It only stands to reason that for us, as for the first-century Gnostics, this process should issue in a theology of self-created divinity.

It bears reminding in this context that, pace Levandowski and his many likeminded gnostic peers in Silicon Valley, neither humans nor gods in our tradition have commanded ostensible cosmic sovereignty on the basis of their intelligence. No, what in fact has inspired religious awe across the last few Western millennia was precisely the profound unknowability of divine aims and the grander cosmic divine. This is, famously, the lesson of the anti-Manichean spiritual tribulations recorded in the Book of Job. It’s also why, for instance, one of the great mystic texts in medieval Catholicism is called The Cloud of Unknowing—and why even a firebreathing colonial evangelical preacher like Jonathan Edwards ultimately set aside his lurid pulpit visions of eternal perdition in favor of a chastened acceptance of human limits that he called “Consent to Being in general.”

Gnosticism, in both its ancient and contemporary guises, is the polar opposite of such chastened acceptance, and such consent. And this is also why, regardless of what becomes of Anthony Levandowski when the knowledge-economy demiurges Google and Uber have their day of reckoning in court next week, it would be idle to dismiss his church-in-the-making as just another shell company or cynical cultish hustle. By tapping directly into the inner faith of our digital meritocracy, he has indeed, I fear, charted the Way of the Future.