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A Google engineer says AI has become sentient. What does that actually mean? Posted on : Jun 25 - 2022

Has artificial intelligence finally come to life, or has it simply become smart enough to trick us into believing it has gained consciousness?

Google engineer Blake Lemoine's recent claim that the company's AI technology has become sentient has sparked debate in technology, ethics and philosophy circles over if, or when, AI might come to life — as well as deeper questions about what it means to be alive.

Lemoine had spent months testing Google's chatbot generator, known as LaMDA (short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications), and grew convinced it had taken on a life of its own, as LaMDA talked about its needs, ideas, fears and rights.

Google dismissed Lemoine's view that LaMDA had become sentient, placing him on paid administrative leave earlier this month — days before his claims were published by The Washington Post.

Most experts believe it's unlikely that LaMDA or any other AI is close to consciousness, though they don't rule out the possibility that technology could get there in future.

"My view is that [Lemoine] was taken in by an illusion," Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist and author of Rebooting AI, told CBC's Front Burner podcast.

"Our brains are not really built to understand the difference between a computer that's faking intelligence and a computer that's actually intelligent — and a computer that fakes intelligence might seem more human than it really is."

Computer scientists describe LaMDA as operating like a smartphone's autocomplete function, albeit on a far grander scale. Like other large language models, LaMDA was trained on massive amounts of text data to spot patterns and predict what might come next in a sequence, such as in a conversation with a human.

"If your phone autocompletes a text, you don't suddenly think that it is aware of itself and what it means to be alive. You just think, well, that was exactly the word I was thinking of," said Carl Zimmer, science columnist for the New York Times and author of Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive.

Humanizing robots

Lemoine, who is also ordained as a mystic Christian priest, told Wired he became convinced of LaMDA's status as a "person" because of its level of self-awareness, the way it spoke about its needs and its fear of death if Google were to delete it.

He insists he was not fooled by a clever robot, as some scientists have suggested. Lemoine maintains his position, and even appeared to suggest that Google had enslaved the AI system. View more