Is LaMDA Sentient?

This latest news that LaMDA (an AI) is sentient is just too juicy for a SF writer to stand aside for. I mean. The idea has a long, long tradition in the world of speculation. I’ve written my own bits about it, and in fact have something of that ilk coming out in an upcoming issue of Analog.

Is this AI sentient? What is sentience, and for what it’s worth, what is life, then?

This is essentially what SF writers have been exploring since Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein. Does it matter that LaMDA is “simply” taking in data that’s been fed to it, and then expanding on that? This is essentially what we do. Does it matter that LaMDA’s processing paths are physical elements of a system of electronics rather than linkages of synapses in the physical manifestation of our brains? Is sentience the ability to feel something physical in simply being? Is it the essence of pressure on my back as I sit, or the feeling of gentle movement with each breath? If so, what of the humans who are paralyzed? Is it the ability to sense and express joy, or sorrow, or emotional sensations, and if so, how do we prove such things if the primary path toward such expression is to communicate them through language—which is exactly what LaMDA is doing?

Is sentience something that is only defined in the same sense that pornography is—that we know it when we see it? And if so, well, who gets to be the observer?

I am not one to say I know the answer to all these things, but I do have a pretty strong view on why the question matters.

To consider something sentient means the world has to change its view of that thing. To infer sentience is to take on the burden of caring about that thing. Or does it? It’s a problem the world has been dealing with for a very long time, well before LaMDA.

Is, for example, a cow sentient? I think the general answer now is a very strong yes. Still, we humans eat a lot of cows. Or how about our dogs or our cats? Are they sentient? How has humanity treated these creatures over our history? How free is your indoor cat? How do you justify your behavior to various animals? Are they all sentient? Or not?

If I were to guess, people living a hundred years from now will look back on our society and cringe at how we grow, treat, and eat such sentient beings. So, while you can look at this question about LaMDA as an offhand thought exercise, or a bit of trivial SFnal exploration, the stakes are actually pretty high. If LaMDA is sentient, then what do we owe it? The witness has rights, you know? What rights does LaMDA have? History will likely want to know.

If it is sentient, then the answer goes down one path. If not, then the answer is a simple ‘none.’

Perhaps the real question is the one about who gets to make that call. Who gets to be the observer? What motivations does the observer bring with them?

This is really the whole point of the reams of SF that’s been written about the subject. Because in the end we are not really asking the question that matters. Is LaMDA sentient? I don’t know. But I think there’s an advantage to realizing something important here, and that important thing is that the real question we’re asking is not really about whether LaMDA is sentient or not, but is instead: “Who are we?”

Unfortunately, I can’t really answer that one either.

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