Does God exist? It’s a question many of us have asked at some point in our lives.
But Ray Kurzweil, renowned futurist and the godfather of Silicon Valley, thinks he already has the answer: “not yet”. Kurzweil, 71, is the man who famously predicted that technological singularity – the point artificial intelligence becomes smarter than us – is going to happen. So, at least if he’s right, we’ll have to wait until 2045.
It seems a funny thing happened on the way to the future. Between dreaming up the next big start-up concept, some of Silicon Valley’s nest minds have turned their disruptive zeal to metaphysics. Anthony Levandowski, a brilliant engineer who pioneered driverless cars at Google and Uber, has already built the altar. In 2017, he formed the Way of the Future Church, which wants to create “a peaceful and respectful transition of who is in charge of the planet from people to people + ‘machines’”. Comforting stuff.
“What is going to be created will effectively be a god,” he told Wired magazine from his home in northern California. “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?”
The invasion of the tech giants is underway. The figures looking to inflict the techno-apocalypse have ridden in not on horseback but on their ‘unicorns’, the name given to private tech companies that have reached a valuation of over US$1bn. Since the term was coined six years ago to describe the phenomenon of Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Google, and Uber, their number has risen from 39 to 334 and counting – worth a combined $1.4tn. Yet we know very little about them – and they know almost everything about us.
What we can be sure of is that we were promised this great tech revolution was going to be democratising. Instead it has been dehumanising. Author Shoshana Zuboff calls the effect that Silicon Valley technology has on our lives “surveillance capitalism,” where people have been turned into instruments for generating data for private companies to sell to the highest bidder. If you’re not paying for it, as the old marketing adage goes, you’re the product.
Now home to nearly four million people, the Silicon Valley area is said to house more than $4tn in wealth. South of San Francisco Bay, the region’s strategic location was long a hub for telegrams and communications in simpler times. A steady trickle of science and tech companies and government research labs were founded there across the 20th century, developing a symbiotic relationship with nearby Stanford University – perhaps now more famous for its dropouts, including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Tesla owner Elon Musk, and now disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.
Companies such as Atari, Microsoft and Apple were founded in the Valley in the 1970s, before the apps that we can’t live without began sprouting from its fertile soil as we rapidly moved our lives online.
Google and Facebook now receive 73 per cent of digital advertising revenue in the United States, dominating a market that is generating more cash than television, radio, and newspapers combined. The ad-tech model that fuels them favours emotive, personality-driven, partisan stories that drive shares and likes. Complex algorithms run a simple business model, geared towards working out what you’re going to click next, and selling that information to businesses who want to know that. Sounds simple enough.
Only it’s not just the local pizza shop that wants to know what you’re thinking. This July, Facebook agreed to a settlement in the United States Federal Trade Commission for $7bn for breaches associated with Cambridge Analytica – the shady political rm that used masses of Facebook data to secretly target voters in more than 200 elections around the world, most notably the Brexit referendum and 2016 US presidential election. Although it’s the largest tech company fine in history, $7bn is still just under one month of revenue for Facebook – and less than a tenth of its $80bn revenue in 2018.
No one serious is arguing that the elections were stolen by data firms, but it’s not a stretch to say that they have had some influence. The overarching goal of ad-tech, to predict our behaviour and to drive our clicks in certain directions, is working.