The sentience of Google’s LaMDA AI has been grossly exaggerated

On Artificial Intelligence and Intellectual Virtue

It is highly unlikely that Google’s LaMDA AI chat it has become sentient, which is to say ‘self-aware.’ What is more likely the case is that it simply represents a sophisticated simulation.

But how would we know for certain? At a time when the philosophical problem of other minds has yet to be solved, and at a time when our understanding of the cognitive and emotional states of even animals is at best incomplete, we simply lack the tools necessary to determine the sentience of ANYTHING except by inference.

That which is perceived as real will be real in its consequences. Most behave as if other humans are self-aware. And how a person treats an animal is largely dependent on the extent to which they believe that animal has a mind, is self-aware, and is capable of things like empathy.

Google engineer Blake Lemoine is unfortunately — and dangerously — misguided in his claims that LaMDA has become sentient. His mistake comes as a result of conflating two types of knowledge: episteme, which involves the ability to reason from first principles, and phronesis, which involves ethical decision-making, or decisions about right action under conditions of uncertainty.

The history of computers has taught us that there is nothing uniquely human about episteme, because it simply involves the application of logical functions to a set of propositions in order to derive valid conclusions. Episteme is about applying rules to facts (which may or may not also be true), and that is something that a computer does all day long.

A disembodied chat bot, however, cannot be sentient because it does not sense. Because it does not sense, it may have an abstract conception of something like pain, but it is not something that it can experience. The same applies to other important concepts like goodness, love, death, and responsibility. It certainly does not feel empathy.

In other words, until an AI is sentient — having the ability to experience sensations — it cannot be sentient — being self-aware. In the absence of an ability to experience the world around it, there is no sense of responsibility. And all acts of cognition are reduced to episteme. (Even probabilistic judgements made under conditions of uncertainty are reduced to episteme, since they are merely the result of applying rules to facts). This is a major reason why we should not trust an AI to make ethical decisions: computers are never uncertain, and they are never responsible for their calculations.

Phronesis (also known as ‘prudence’ or ‘practical wisdom’) involves far more than applying a set of rules to a set of conditions (although this is certainly what fundamentalist religions try to do). It involves struggle. It involves uncertainty. And it involves personal responsibility.

TyTy and me

For example, when my wife and I had to make the decision to put our dog to sleep a few weeks ago, the decision-making process did not involve reasoning from first principles. It involved empathy. It involved struggle. And it involved an understanding that failure to make a decision would itself be a decision for which we were responsible.

Phronesis is hard. It involves struggle because it is something that is only possible by sentient beings interacting in empathy alongside other sentient beings. As Frans De Waal reminds us, empathy is not abstract. It is lived. It is embodied.

If phronesis is only possible by things that sense, feel, act, and are personally responsible in the world (i.e. sentient beings) and a disembodied chat bot like Google’s is not capable of sensation or meaningful activity, then we cannot consider it sentient in the way that Blake Lemoine would have us believe it is. Instead, it is an opportunity for us to test our assumptions about what it means to be human and to understand that our humanity DOES NOT lie uniquely in either our ability to calculate (episteme), nor in our ability to manufacture (techne) because the rule-based nature of each of these activities allows for automation via machines. Instead, our humanity comes from our ability to make practical and ethical decisions under conditions of uncertainty and in ways that ultimately make both episteme and techne possible.

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