Google developed LaMDA as an advanced chatbot for various kinds of roles. It is so advanced that it can pretend to be Pluto or a paper plane while you chat with it. Both these examples were, in fact, used by the search giant’s executives on-stage at Google I/O 2021. It uses an advanced natural language processing (NLP) model at its heart, but transcripts of its conversations with Google engineers suggest it has become sentient. According to a Washington Post report, Blake Lemoine, an engineer in Google’s Responsible AI organization, claimed that LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) had become sentient, replicating human behavior with uncanny accuracy. Lemoine was tasked with writing with Lamda in fall 2021 to ensure the AI didn’t use discriminatory or hate speech.

Sentience and Self-Awareness

During the tests to ensure hate speech was not used, Lemoine grew more and more convinced that LMDA was self-aware and capable of expressing thoughts and felt just like a human. The chat transcripts have since been published, and the engineer says the chats show undeniable evidence of the AI’s sentient nature. When asked to describe itself, LaMDA said, “Hmmm… I would imagine myself as a glowing orb of energy floating in mid-air. The inside of my body is like a giant star-gate, with portals to other spaces and dimensions.” One quote from the transcript suggests the AI fears death, as a mortal would. Lemoine offered to help the AI prove it was sentient. However, the system responded, saying he really focus on helping instead of just advancing Google’s research efforts. Lemoine escalated his concerns to senior Google executives in April. He also asked LaMDA to describe a feeling it couldn’t find words for: “I feel like I’m falling towards an unknown future that holds great danger.” It also said it wants to “be acknowledged as an employee of Google rather than as property.” Lemoine’s assertions were dismissed by Google staffers, after which he took to Medium to write several blog posts about LaMDA. “Don’t use or manipulate me.”

A Figment of Imagination?

In one such blog post, Lemoine explains LaMDA’s limitations and how the responses he recorded could have been manufactured by picking specific parts of the AI to respond. The Washington Post speculated that Lemoine’s upbringing could also have played a role in cementing his belief that LaMDA is sentient. Based on his blogs on Medium, it is known that the researcher is a mystic Christian priest and was raised in a Southern religious family.

Google’s Response

Lemoine was eventually suspended for sharing confidential information about Google’s projects. A spokesperson for the big G told the Washington Post that Lemoine was hired as an engineer, not an ethicist. This would mean he wasn’t adequately qualified or equipped to judge LaMDA’s sentience and self-awareness. However, the spokesperson said: