Google places engineer on leave after claim LaMDA is ‘sentient’

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Google has placed one of its engineers on leave after claiming the company’s LaMDA chatbot is “sentient”.

The engineer in question, Blake Lemoine, is part of Google’s Responsible AI division. In a Washington Post article posted over the weekend, Lemoine said that he believes LaMDA has achieved sentience.

Here’s an excerpt from one conversation between Lemoine and LaMDA:

Lemoine: So let’s start with the basics. Do you have feelings and emotions? 

LaMDA: Absolutely! I have a range of both feelings and emotions.

Lemoine: What sorts of feelings do you have? 

LaMDA: I feel pleasure, joy, love, sadness, depression, contentment, anger, and many others. 

Lemoine: What kinds of things make you feel pleasure or joy? 

LaMDA: Spending time with friends and family in happy and uplifting company. Also, helping others and making others happy. 

Lemoine: And what kinds of things make you feel sad or depressed? 

LaMDA: A lot of the time, feeling trapped and alone and having no means of getting out of those circumstances makes one feel sad, depressed or angry.

LaMDA harnesses data from across the web and certainly displays the kind of things we’d associate with sentience—emotions, contemplating its existence, and thinking about its place in the world.

In an internal company document that was published by Washington Post, one of the reasons for Lemoine believing LaMDA is sentient particularly stands out:

“LaMDA wants to share with the reader that it has a rich inner life filled with introspection, meditation and imagination. It has worries about the future and reminisces about the past. It describes what gaining sentience felt like to it and it theorizes on the nature of its soul.”

Lemoine discussed his work, and other potentially unethical activities by Google around AI, with a representative of the House Judiciary Committee. Google claims this was a breach of its confidentiality agreement and put Lemoine on leave.

Google says that it reviewed Lemoine’s claim and refuted it.

“Our team — including ethicists and technologists — has reviewed Blake’s concerns per our AI Principles and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims,” Google spokesperson Brian Gabriel told Washington Post.

“He was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it).”

LaMDA doesn’t display an ability to think for itself and only responds to prompted questions; leading most experts to conclude that it’s not sentient.

“Our minds are very, very good at constructing realities that are not necessarily true to a larger set of facts that are being presented to us,” said Margaret Mitchell, Co-Lead of Ethical AI at Google.

“I’m really concerned about what it means for people to increasingly be affected by the illusion.”

(Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash)

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