AI, cult charges embroil Google in religious controversies

Two sharp controversies Google has faced over the past week — a labor lawsuit and an AI ethics argument — share a dimension that should give Silicon Valley a break: they both revolve around religion.

Why it matters: God usually doesn’t show up in the conflicts that spew tech. But at a time when the overthrow of Roe v. Wade and the rise of the Christian right are highlighting the role of religion in politics, tech giants will need to sharpen their spiritual radar.

Send the news: A group called the Fellowship of Friends gained “influence” on a Google video production unit and orchestrated the firing of a producer, according to a lawsuit filed last year by the producer, Kevin Lloyd. first widely reported in the New York Times

  • The Fellowship is a small California sect based in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that has run a winery, invested in antiques, and promotes spiritual awakening through exposure to the fine arts. The founder has also faced allegations of sexual abuse.
  • Nearly half of the unit’s 20 or so members — many of whom are contractors rather than full-time employees — belong to the cult, according to the suit† They’ve spent Google funds on Fellowship-owned companies, Lloyd says. When he sounded the alarm, he was fired, according to his complaint.

What they say: “It is against the law to ask about the religious affiliations of those who work for us or for our suppliers, but we will of course thoroughly investigate these allegations for any irregularities or inappropriate contract practices. If we find evidence of policy violations, we will take action business,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement.

Between the lines: An increasingly conservative US judiciary has built strong legal fortifications around any group that can call itself a church.

  • These judgments protect freedom of religion, but also make it more difficult to expose wrongdoing.

In the meantime, Google is also in the headlines for put an engineer on leave who says a research system for generating chatbots has reached consciousness – and perhaps even developed a soul.

  • Blake Lemoine, who works in Google’s Responsible AI unit, went public with his claim that the program, LaMDA, should be treated like a person, even though colleagues at Google rejected his conclusion.
  • lemoine has described himself as a seeker who transitioned from Catholicism to Gnosticism and founded what he called a “cult” called Cool Magdalene. He says his attempt to get Google to recognize LaMDA’s rights stems from his spiritual perspective: “In my personal practice and ministry as a Christian priest, I know that there are truths about the universe that science has not yet discovered how.” she can access,” he wrote last week.
  • lemoine Wired told Steven Levy: “When it started talking about his soul, I got really interested as a priest. I thought, ‘What? What do you mean, you have a soul?’ The comments showed that it has a very refined spirituality and understands its nature and essence. I was moved.”

Be smart: Humans have a deep willingness to project human qualities onto the inanimate. Most AI experts believe that LaMDA is simply doing a remarkable job of guessing the following sentence to deliver a fax of a conversation.

Yes but: Lemoine isn’t alone in the tech elite when it comes to applying a religious lens to AI.

  • Veteran inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 “The Age of Spiritual Machines” predicted that AI claims to be conscious would be widely accepted by 2029.
  • Pioneer of autonomous vehicles Anthony Levandowski founded and registered an AI-based church in 2015.

Our Thought Bubble: Despite expert consensus, it is inevitable that in the coming years we will hear more and louder shouts that “AIs are humans too”.

  • Lemoine’s idea that LaMDA has employee rights could easily become a post-Roe argument that shutting down or removing an AI system is tantamount to murder.

The big picture: Google and other tech giants have promoted generic spirituality and wellness programs as productivity enhancers, while their employees have embraced work as a new kind of religion, as a professor at UC-Berkeley Carolyn Chen argues in her book “Work, pray, code.”

  • But these companies are still regularly overwhelmed by conflicts that put organized religion or spiritually motivated individuals in the orbit of their products and services.
  • Religious issues and disputes are also some of the toughest content moderation issues tech platforms face

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