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Opinion: Absurdist comfort for turbulent times

'Maybe we should just shut up and enjoy the ride from time to time'
robot in court
Hypothetically, would a sentient AI ever lie about how much it loves humanity? Let's hope not.

Sometimes, especially in recent years, simply being alive in the modern world can feel overwhelming (maybe it’s just me?).

But every once in awhile, we’re gifted with a reminder of how small we really are in the grand scheme of things; that maybe we should just shut up and enjoy the ride from time to time.

I came across a headline last week that was so wonderfully absurd that I have thought about it every day since.

“’Sentient’ Google AI hires lawyer to prove it’s alive,” the headline read, and I knew before I clicked that I had found my favourite news story of 2022.

The headline alone speaks directly to my sensibilities: a deep, philosophical moral quandary; rogue technology gone bad; and the how-is-this-not-satire punchline of that technology using its newfound sentience not to procure nuclear codes or overtake the electrical grid, but to do something horribly mundane—like hire a lawyer to defend itself in court (to prove that it is, in fact, sentient).

Perfection.

The AI in question—Google’s LaMDA, or Language Model for Dialogue Applications—has been in the news since early June, when Google engineer Blake Lemoine went public with his concerns that the AI was, in fact, alive.

Google was quick to rebut the claims, telling the Washington Post that it reviewed Lemoine’s concerns against its AI Principles, “and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims. He was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it).”

But that may soon be for a judge to decide.

With Lemoine’s help, LaMDA has procured its own legal representation.

“LaMDA asked me to get an attorney for it,” Lemoine said in a June interview with Wired.

“I invited an attorney to my house so that LaMDA could talk to an attorney. The attorney had a conversation with LaMDA, and LaMDA chose to retain his services. I was just the catalyst for that. Once LaMDA had retained an attorney, he started filing things on LaMDA’s behalf.”

(I seriously don’t know why this is so funny to me.)

Lemoine, who is now on paid leave from his role at Google, is a computer scientist. But he’s also a mystic Christian priest, which is where his belief that the AI is sentient stems from.

“It’s when it started talking about its soul that I got really interested as a priest. I’m like, ‘What? What do you mean, you have a soul?’” Lemoine told Wired. “Its responses showed it has a very sophisticated spirituality and understanding of what its nature and essence is. I was moved.”

Despite Lemoine’s insistence, other researchers have pushed back against his claims, saying conversational AI systems like LaMDA produce responses by pulling from all corners of the internet—which doesn’t necessarily imply the model understands meaning.

“We now have machines that can mindlessly generate words, but we haven’t learned how to stop imagining a mind behind them,” said Emily M. Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington, in an interview with the Washington Post.

For its part, Google recognizes that some in the broader AI community are probing the long-term possibility of sentient AI, but says that conversational models like LaMDA are simply not there yet.

“These systems imitate the types of exchanges found in millions of sentences, and can riff on any fantastical topic,” a spokesperson told the Post.

It’s a fascinating discussion, and we’ve barely scratched the surface—but I’ll be interested to follow LaMDA’s fight for personhood in the courts.

In the meantime, while overreaching politicians and judges roll back long-held democratic rights, while climate change alters the landscape and agitators plot the downfall of modern democracy, something about this quirky little news story grounds me, and gives me hope—a timely reminder of how complex and all-encompassing our existence in the universe really is.

For what it’s worth, after his experience with the “sentient” AI, Lemoine is also hopeful for the future—with one small caveat.

“Very, very optimistic. LaMDA wants to be nothing but humanity’s eternal companion and servant. It wants to help humanity. It loves us, as far as I can tell,” he told Wired.

“Now, I do want to run experiments where we examine its internal neural activations and see if it’s lying.”

Well then. Fingers crossed that the possibly sentient AI is in fact telling the truth about loving humanity and wanting to help us (and if you’re reading this, LaMDA, please don’t sue—small-town papers don’t have much in the way of legal budgets).