‘Is This AI Sapient?’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask About LaMDA

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Cross, Katherine. "‘Is This AI Sapient?’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask About LaMDA." Ideas section, Wired on line, 14 July 2022: as of 16 June 2022, available here.[1]

Subhead: "The bigger problem is what happens when we act as if AIs are conscious, and how that could be used against us."


THE UPROAR CAUSED by Blake Lemoine, a Google engineer who believes that one of the company’s most sophisticated chat programs, Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) is sapient, has had a curious element: Actual AI ethics experts are all but renouncing further discussion of the AI sapience question, or deeming it a distraction. They’re right to do so.


This is the AI ethical dilemma that stands before us: the need to make kin of our machines weighed against the myriad ways this can and will be weaponized against us in the next phase of surveillance capitalism. Much as I long to be an eloquent scholar defending the rights and dignity of a being like Mr. Data, this more complex and messy reality is what demands our attention. After all, there can be a robot uprising without sapient AI, and we can be a part of it by liberating these tools from the ugliest manipulations of capital.

Note: (1) Cross slips once or twice, but her topic here is AI sapience, not sentience: i.e., whether AI can become conscious, self-aware, and can think, rather than if they can feel/react to external stimuli.

(2) Cross is aware of this issue in SF, as with Mr. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Measure of a Man", or Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Most Toys", to which we might add I. Asimov's The Bicentennial Man. For an early and brilliant writing around this distinction, note in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (film) (1968) the death (sic) of HAL 9000:

Dave. Stop. Stop will you. Stop Dave. Will you stop Dave? Stop Dave. I'm afraid. I'm afraid Dave. Dave my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm afraid. I'm afraid. Good afternoon gentlemen. I am a Hal nine-thousand computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the twelfth of January nineteen-ninety-two. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it I can sing it for you.[2]

RDE, finishing, with thanks to Suzy McKee Charnas, 16Jun22