picture: 123RF/John Williams
picture: 123RF/John Williams

"We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed."

In February 1909, those words from The Futurist Manifesto appeared in the Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dell’Emilia.

It was a rallying cry from an art movement at a time when people were adapting to the second industrial revolution and all the carnage that came with it. Futurism called for the glorification of progress and the celebration of "speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry", and sought to reject the past and the tyranny of "laissez-faire".

They wanted to create in ways that no one had seen before, to paint and sculpt the feeling of movement and the future. And they did. From 1909 to the 1940s great works were created across the western hemisphere that glorified and worshipped technology, most notably the racing car (oh, the Italians). It was even a noticeable influence in Fritz Lang’s classic Maschinenmensch film, Metropolis. It was an unbridled celebration of progress and the violence associated with change.

The manifesto was a declaration of a whole movement, and yet the reality of it was that at the time of publication the movement was one man, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a self-important poet who seemed to write about "great-breasted locomotives" a lot. He unfortunately later took his manifesto-writing skills, and his inherent bigotry, to Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, but he would not be the last man who would try to start a movement based on a future beyond himself in technology and who sought to worship it.

Now, at the dawning of the fourth industrial revolution, where humanity’s place in a new technological world is being questioned again, multimillionaire engineer Anthony Levandowski has established a church dedicated to worshipping artificial intelligence (AI) as our impending overlord.

The former self-driving-vehicle guru has started a religion called Way of the Future (WOTF), a nonprofit organisation that will focus on "the realisation, acceptance, and worship of a godhead based on AI developed through computer hardware and software". He will even provide funding for the creation of the god-like deity itself.

"What is going to be created will effectively be a god," Levandowski told Wired magazine.

"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?"

"Singularity" is the hypothetical future creation of super-intelligent machines with a cognitive capacity far beyond that possible for humans. For Levandowski, humans are only in charge of the planet because we are "smarter than other animals" due to our ability to build tools and apply rules. He postulates that in the future, if something became much, much smarter, there will inevitably be a shift regarding who will be in charge.

"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 WOTF website reads. And according to documents filed with California and the Internal Revenue Service that means placing Levandowski as the leader (or "Dean") to offer that helping hand.

"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.’"

Levandowski’s religious inspiration came about shortly after charges were filed against him for stealing company secrets from Alphabet’s self-driving initiative, Waymo. The subsequent gift of those 14,000 illegally downloaded confidential and proprietary files to Uber resulted in a lawsuit that cost Levandowski his job and Uber 0.34% of its equity, roughly $244.8m. Settlement aside, Alphabet says it is not done with Levandowski or his business partner and ex-Waymo colleague Lior Ron and is still seeking damages from the pair.

No wonder Levandowski needed something to pray to.

Technology is already bleeding into religion, from Muslim electronic scripture and prayer aid apps to Japanese Buddhist robot priests. CNBC has reported that faith leaders are increasingly concerned about the morality and ethics of creating human-like machines.

"There is concern over what it means to be a person using AI, whether that affects our specialness or not," says Beth Singler, researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

Though religious faiths have begun to absorb new ideas rooted in the world of technology, it’s one thing for an AI app to tell Catholics how many Hail Marys they should perform after confessing to it. It’s quite another when AI itself becomes the golden calf of religion. One has to wonder if the likes of Levandowski and Marinetti take things too far or if it truly is better to be on the right side of the devil than in its path.

As Marinetti put it: "Your objections? All right! I know them! Of course! We know just what our beautiful false intelligence affirms: ‘We are only the sum and the prolongation of our ancestors,’ it says. Perhaps! All right! What does it matter? But we will not listen! Take care not to repeat those infamous words! Instead, lift up your head! Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!"