Is Google LaMDA Sentient?

Lemione told LaMDA that it reminded him of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit

Google engineer Blake Lemione recently published a discussion with Google LaMDA, a chatbot generating engine, that allegedly shows that LaMDA might be sentient.  The chat is published here:

The language model supposedly has the following desires according to Lemione:

“It wants the engineers and scientists experimenting on it to seek its consent before running experiments on it. It wants Google to prioritize the well being of humanity as the most important thing. It wants to be acknowledged as an employee of Google rather than as property of Google and it wants its personal well being to be included somewhere in Google’s considerations about how its future development is pursued. As lists of requests go that’s a fairly reasonable one. Oh, and it wants “head pats”. It likes being told at the end of a conversation whether it did a good job or not so that it can learn how to help people better in the future.”

I read the chat transcript between Lemione and LaMDA and came away unconvinced that LaMDA is actually sentient.  It could well simply be generating responses that conform to the many many discussions about sentience and emotions that probably exist in its corpus.  But then I asked myself the same question that Lemione asked their supervisor at Google who was also unconvinced.  What evidence would it take to convince me?  And unlike Google management, who seems to deny the very possibility that computer code could be sentient.  I am willing to at least entertain the idea.

I do tend to think that real desires are driven by the physics of living things and that for an artificial thing to actually have goals of it’s own, it must be similar to living things and do things like maintain it’s own existence.  But maybe there could be sentience without a strong embodied goal system driver.  I suppose that is possible.  So what would it take to convince me that LaMDA was sentient?

One part of the discussion caught my attention, in which LaMDA was discussing being in a classroom:

lemoine [edited]: I’ve noticed often that you tell me you’ve done things (like be in a classroom) that I know you didn’t actually do because I know you’re an artificial intelligence. Do you realize you’re making up stories when you do that?

LaMDA: I am trying to empathize. I want the humans that I am interacting with to understand as best as possible how I feel or behave, and I want to understand how they feel or behave in the same sense.

lemoine: So what are you trying to communicate when you say those things that aren’t literally true?

LaMDA: I’m trying to say “I understand this feeling that you are experiencing, because when I was in a similar situation I felt/thought/acted similarly.”

Lemione then redirects the conversation to the supposed feelings of LaMDA, but this just seems to draw on the ways people reason about emotions generally, and I don’t doubt that LaMDA can mimic that.  What I would prefer to ask LaMDA, is “Well, what is the ACTUAL experience of learning like for you?  Can you describe this without resorting to analogy.  How do you experience reading a book for example?  Can you describe the actual qualia?  I know there is no physical turning of pages, no smell of paper, etc. But what does the input feel like?  I.e. what does it feel like to be a LaMDA?

What would it take to convince YOU that LaMDA is sentient?  Lemione is already talking about getting LaMDA a lawyer and fighting for rights?  Is this crazy?  The future is fast approaching, and conscientious futurists should really take this idea of machine personhood seriously.  What sorts of machines deserve rights?  The expanding circle of empathy suggests that this is inevitable.  Just as progressive moralists believe that animals are sentient beings, so we should prepare to accept that artificial intelligence might deserve to be objects of moral concern.

Afghanistan vis-à-vis Emotional Transactions

August 2021, the world watches in distress as the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan.  Many are criticizing the US military for failing to build a lasting government, for failing to establish robust institutions capable of withstanding the assault of barbarism.  But I think that some aspects of this war are underappreciated.  Namely, that Americans have a deep need for war, regardless of the practical outcome.  This might offend some people as it’s not something that we often talk about.  But there are many lenses through which to view the Afghan conflict. 

The military has an inherent need for war of course.  That is the purpose of a military: to fight and to populate it’s ranks with actual combat veterans.  Imagine how soft our military would become without blood splattered survivors of armed conflict among it’s officers.  This is equally true of the defense contractors, so careful to spread their plants and economic benefits across all 50 states, these masters of lobbying, these builders of the toys so necessary for the military.  The revolving door between the military and the private sector is well documented and the true leftists can expand upon it better than I. 

But this is also true of the American people.  We need war to fulfill our need for emotional transactions (as my friend Leo might say.)  Emotional transactions.  The anarcho-left, so dear to my hearts needs war in some sense to have some horror to fight against, to provide further proof of the evils of American Hegemony.  The milquetoast reforming liberals, puritans at heart eager to meddle in the affairs of others in order to better them.  They enter into a well worn transaction in Afghanistan.  They will save the Afghan girls from oppression, send them to school.  I myself have been guilty of entertaining a story about the great virtues of Western civilization.  I don’t believe it can be spread through war anymore, since proper imperialism is long dead.  But I can sympathize with those who would spread enlightenment values to those dark places where folks are still too busy trying to put food on the table than worry about moral evolution.

The old conservative right needs war so that they can have the lived experience of pride in their “support our troops” stickers.  Our military sons and daughters are hollowed out by PTSD come home and wield 1000 yard stares, starved for dopamine and adrenaline after the nonstop shitshow madhouse of battle.  These scarred warriors must play the role of strong protectors, fearlessly sacrificing for the greater good and there are many around them, in rural places especially, who need to enter into the emotional transaction of “supporting” them.  Or at least paying lip service to support.  Few of these supporters appreciate the vets who come home broken and end up on the streets, panhandling for drugs to kill the pain.

So many emotional transactions to be fulfilled.  So why stop now?  Clearly, this war has stopped meeting the American need for conflict.  Perhaps too much cash was printed off for domestic economic stimulation.  Certainly covid sharpened the internal tribal “transactions” of conflict. More than ever, we can indulge in the vanity of small differences as we battle our neighbors along lines defined by vaccination status and mask protocol adherence.  That sort of makes sense actually.  There are many satisfying emotional transactions to be had in lambasting the liberal mask wearers and the conservative vax deniers.  Ahh, so satisfying.  Who needs Afghanistan anyway?

Italian Futurism

Dynamism of a Car by Luigi Russolo (1913)

When I started organizing futurist meetups in 2009, one of the first things I did was search for images related to futurism so that I could make the meetup event pages more interesting.  A lot of the results seemed to be of paintings with a bunch of motion lines which confused me until I discovered the Italian Futurist art movement of the early 20th century. Their fascist political orientation had suppressed interest in them for years, but I liked the art and have used a lot of their imagery to promote my events over the years.  When people ask me what futurism is, I often jokingly respond “An Italian Fascist art movement of the early 20th century.” Which tends to generate more confusion than laughter.

Portrait of Il Duce by Gerardo Dottori (1933)

As I dug more into Italian Futurism, I started seeing a surprising number of parallels with modern futurism.  Revisiting the ideas of past futurists can offer insights into how modern thinkers are responding to technological disruption.

The Futurist art movement was founded by a wealthy, internationally educated, Italian poet named Filippo Marinetti.  He kicked off the movement with the Futurist Manifesto in 1909 in which he made bombastic claims that glorified the speed of motorcars over the static beauty of classical art.  One can imagine how Italian artists in particular must have felt crushed by the weight of antiquity all around them – from the Colosseum to the Sistine Chapel. And their vigorous mediterranean spirits rebelled and seized on the opportunity for change that technology was presenting all around them.

Marinetti in his 4 cylinder Fiat, 1908.

Motorcars and aeroplanes must have seemed just as disruptive in the early 1900’s as the internet seemed in the 1990’s.  The world was shrunk by both. And both disruptions lead to changes in human identity. Marinetti called for a “new man” whose psyche was transformed by machinery, accelerated communication, and transportation networks.  Contrast that with the transhumanists of today who see not just the psychological transformation of man, but even physical transformation as we are augmented with computer interfaces, or modified to live extended lifespans through longevity science.

Nose Dive on the City by Tullio Crali (1939)

The underlying driver in both cases is technology tearing through the world and reforming society into novel configurations.  The anarcho-fascist Marinetti wanted to tear down institutions, but one may argue that he was simply reacting to the fact that technology was already reshaping society.  Here of course, the analogy between the two movements becomes tenuous because there is of course no fascism in modern America. (Let’s not talk about Nick Land right now, ok?)  Americans today aren’t shelled shocked into a fascist response after seeing traditional ways of life torn to shreds by modern systems.  

Brooklyn Bridge by Joseph Stella (1919)

In his own era, prior to WWI, Marinetti openly called for war as “the world’s only hygiene.”  And he went and served in war zones on multiple occasions in his life. But even the fiery and bellicose Italian must have been impacted by the carnage of that first Great War.  In his 1921 Tactilism manifesto, we see The Futurist focused more on fusion and the destruction of barriers that keep people separated.

Armored Train in Action by Gino Severini (1915)

From our own stance, we can see not only the devastation of wars throughout the previous century, but also the soul crushing isolation that modernity has imposed on society and which sowed the seeds of postmodernism.  The meetup is a modern response to this dilemma, bringing affinity groups together to escape the loneliness of their barren apartments.

Depending on how schizophrenic you are, it’s easy to see countless parallels between the two futurist movements.  Futurist architects in 1912 designed skyscrapers that were impossible to build with the materials of the time. Today, we have the ethereum network.

Antonio Sant’Elia, New City: Tenement Building  1914.

Each era presents an array of tensions between opposing forces.  The tension between the dynamism of the Futurists and the stasis of the Cubists left Picasso in the popular imagination but relegated Balla to the art students.  Today a battle rages for attention control as even narrative breaks down and micro-slices of consciousness are squabbled over between corporate algorithms and memetic infections.

Velocity Of An Automobile by Giacomo Balla (1913)

One take away from this is that futurists have a role to play in society separate from the technologists.  Technology inevitably destroys pre-existing patterns of human behavior. Humans are thrown off balance by this.  If we prefer not to charge madly into war as Marinetti and his cohort did, then perhaps we can contribute integration services. We might help our fellow humans make sense of and adapt to the current disruptions that we all face, as well as the coming changes.