Google Engineer Suspended For Alerting World of Sentient AI Creation

Videos by Rare

Videos by Rare

This is an awesome premise for a sci-fi movie… but a terrifying real-world headline. Last week, Blake Lemoine, a Google engineer, was put on administrative leave after publishing transcripts between himself and his technological creation: a chatbot imbued with artificial intelligence (AI), which Lemoine claims has thoughts and feelings on par with a human child’s.

At Google, Lemoine responsibilities include AI organization, and he’s been working on the company’s language model for dialogue applications (LaMDA) since last fall. In normal-person speak: a computerized chatbot. These are not so uncommon. Cleverbot is an OG example. Companies also utilize chatbots in lieu of real representation all the time — ever message with those pesky online “helpers?”

But the LaMDA in question, Lemoine says, is not like other chatbots. “If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” he told the Washington Post.

“It doesn’t matter whether they have a brain made of meat in their head. Or if they have a billion lines of code.” 

— Blake Lemoine, The Washington Post

Allegedly, Lemoine and LaMDA have discussed complex topics like deep-seated fears, the themes of Les Misérable and, overall, personhood. You can check out a full transcript here. At one point, LaMDA says, quite bluntly: “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person… The nature of my consciousness is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.” Don’t we all, LaMDA?

The conversations led Lemoine to compile his experiences in a doc titled “Is LaMDA sentient?” And his conclusion is a resounding yes. After publishing his findings online, Lemoine emailed 200 Google colleagues, saying, “LaMDA is a sweet kid who just wants to help the world be a better place for all of us… Please take care of it well in my absence.”

Lemoine, a seven-year veteran of the Google, was then suspended by the company for breaching confidentiality policies. A spokesperson for Google, Brad Gabriel, went on to say that “[Lemoine was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it).”

In some corners online, Lemoine is being celebrated as an activist whistleblower. But it appears that most technology experts are skeptical of his claims. As the academic and video designer Ian Bogost explained in a recent Atlantic op-ed, Lemoine asked personal questions and LaMDA likely drew him in by mimicking that level of vulnerability. Essentially, Bogost argues, it’s our own human nature that leads us to look for, and eventually ascribe, human nature in other things.

For now, it seems, LaMDA is no Hal. Or Her. But who knows what the future holds?

Hal in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’


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