A Google engineer claims AI system is conscious

Google AI Source: Hebi B

Google has been quick to shut down claims by one of their engineers that an artificial intelligence (AI) system being developed by the company was conscious.

The report by CNN on June 14 follows the claim over the weekend by the engineer who had claimed that the AI unit had become sentient, that it was conscious and interacting with engineers.

Google however disputed the claims saying that numerous other engineers and scientists had interacted with the unit and no one had reported or made any reference to it having any consciousness.  

LaMDA, which stands for “Language Model for Dialog Applications, is one of the large-scale projects that Google is working on. It has been trained to scan large swathes of text and to provide written prompts.

One of many such systems, they are essentially tasked with finding patterns and predicting what word or words should come next, a little like predictive text but more sophisticated. For the untrained, some of these appear convincing having become increasingly good at answering questions.

That can lead people to believe that the responses are from a human rather than from a bit of AI software. According to Google these can engage in free-flow conversation but can also be rambling, freaky, unresponsive and disturbing.

The engineer Blake Lemoine had told the Washington Post that he provided proof to Google, however, they had disagreed with him. The company said after a review by a team that included ethicists and technologists, that there was no evidence to support his claims.  

Lempoine who has been put on administrative leave believes that he may be fired soon saying that a previous head of the AI team had been fired in early 2021 being outspoken about internal affairs.

Abeba Birhane, a Senior Fellow in trustworthy AI at Mozilla, tweeted in response to the chatter online about the claims: “We have entered a new era of ‘this neural net is conscious’ and this time it’s going to drain so much energy to refute.”

Gary Marcus, founder and CEO of Geometric Intelligence and author of books including “Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust,” called the idea of LaMDA as sentient “nonsense on stilts” in a tweet.

Marcus has since written a blog to explain that all such AI systems do is match patterns by pulling from enormous databases of language. Speaking to CNN Business he said the best way to think about systems such as LaMDA is like a “glorified version” of the auto-complete software you may use to predict the next word in a text message. If you type “I’m really hungry so I want to go to a,” it might suggest “restaurant” as the next word. But that’s a prediction made using statistics.

In an interview, Gebru, Founder and Executive Director of the Distributed AI Research Institute, or DAIR, said Lemoine is a victim of companies making claims that conscious AI or artificial general intelligence, an idea that refers to AI that can perform human-like tasks and interact with us in meaningful ways, are not far away.

In its statement, Google pointed out that LaMDA has undergone 11 “distinct AI principles reviews,” as well as “rigorous research and testing” related to quality, safety, and the ability to come up with statements that are fact-based.

“Of course, some in the broader AI community are considering the long-term possibility of sentient or general AI, but it doesn’t make sense to do so by anthropomorphizing today’s conversational models, which are not sentient.

“Hundreds of researchers and engineers have conversed with LaMDA and we are not aware of anyone else making the wide-ranging assertions, or anthropomorphizing LaMDA, the way Blake has.”

The claims by the Google engineer that an AI system is conscious will prompt many conspiracy theories as it will debate about the ethics of the work and the future of technology in our lives.

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Written by

Peter McLaren-Kennedy

Originally from South Africa, Peter is based on the Costa Blanca and is a web reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at editorial@euroweeklynews.com.