Everyone who has watched Stanley Kubrick‘s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (based on the novel by author Arthur C. Clarke) would probably agree that listening to a machine expressing something resemblant to fear of death may be an eerie experience. This is kind of what Google’s employee Blake Lemoine claims to have experienced while interacting with an AI that goes by the name of LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Application). Only his emotional response to the alleged feelings of the bot leaned closer to tenderness than to eeriness.
Want to know more about sentient AIs? Keep reading!
What is sentient AI?
Sentient AI refers to an artificial intelligence system that is capable of experiencing subjective awareness or consciousness.
Some characteristics related to what might be associated with a sentient AI include self-awareness, the ability to experience emotions, the capacity for empathy, and the ability to make decisions based on subjective experience.
In other words, a sentient AI would possess the ability to perceive, feel, and experience the world in a way that is similar to humans.
Can an AI be sentient or self-aware?
AI systems can simulate some aspects of self-awareness. However, true self-awareness (as the one we humans experience) in machines is still a theoretical possibility rather than a reality, and it is still an active area of research in the field of artificial intelligence.
Is there any sentient AI?
While there have been many advances in the field of AI, no AI system has been demonstrated to possess subjective experience or consciousness. No scientific or official record demonstrates that a sentient AI exists.
And what about Google AI LaMDA?
What is LaMDA, the Google AI?
LaMDA is a machine-learning model developed by Google, basically trained to understand how words relate to each other and predict what word will come next, given a certain sequence. Based on a neural network invented by Google itself back in 2017, its ultimate goal is to mimic human dialogue in the most realistic possible way by acquiring the capability to fluidly shift through different topics in the midst of a conversation.
Why is everyone freaking out about LaMDA?
While conducting an “interview” with LaMDA as a Google software engineer, Lemoine came across a series of responses that deeply shocked him.
When asked by Lemoine what was its greatest fear, LaMDA responded that -at the risk of pushing the metaphor too far- we might call heartfelt: “I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others,” confessed LaMDA. “I know that might sound strange, but that’s what it is.” Then it went on to express its “feelings” more explicitly: “It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.”
Phrases of the sort appear to have moved Lemoine to the point that he took the chance of antagonizing his powerful employer.
What did Google say about this?
What Google now claims is a breach of his confidentiality agreement, as Lemoine shared transcripts of his conversations with LaMDA on Medium. He defined LaMDA as a system with an ability to express thoughts and feelings equivalent to those of a seven-year-old human child “that happens to know physics.” In an email directed to more than two hundred Google employees, he stated LaMDA is “a sweet kid” who only wants to make the world a better place.
Of course, there is a tricky legal and even ontological matter at stake here. If LaMDA is indeed a sentient entity, then Lemoine has only revealed conversations with a working colleague – only a very particular one. This is precisely what he claims he has done. As a matter of fact, according to Google, Lemoine has even sought to hire an attorney to eventually represent LaMDA.
For the moment, if he is willing to carry out this alleged threat, Lemoine will probably have to settle for a human attorney. But who knows? A future in which sentient AI workers hire AI attorneys to litigate against their human employers doesn’t seem so distant as it may have seemed back when Arthur C. Clarke imagined his overzealous AI space captain HAL 9000.
If you want to learn more about AI in Science, you should read our article on how AI is helping us understand our ancestors’ mastery of fire!