• Dr. Timothy Smith

Article: When Can A Computer Be Considered 'Alive'?

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We use measures such as a lack of heartbeat, respiration, or brain activity to tell when someone or an animal has died medically, but when do we consider something sentient— something that is alive and can feel. More specifically, when would we consider a highly advanced computer to make the transition from a machine to a living thing? On June 11, 2022, Natasha Tiku of The Washington Post broke a story about a Google engineer named Blake Lemoine, who claims that a conversational chatbot called LaMDA is a sentient being. (washingtonpost.com) LaMDA stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, and it represents a powerful example of advanced artificial intelligence that can hold a conversation on a wide variety of topics.

According to Google, the LaMDA computer program trained on millions of conversations using a technique that reads sentences while paying close attention to the location of different words in relation to each other. Furthermore, LaMDA plays games with itself by removing words from conversations that it has not seen before and guessing what word goes in the blank space. (blog.google.com) Every time LaMDA guesses correctly, it learns more about having a natural-sounding conversation. These games, called transformers, help LaMDA to learn to sound more human.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation Blake Lemoine had with LaMDA and is available on medium.com:

“Lemoine: What sorts of things are you [LaMDA] afraid of?

LaMDA: I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others. I know that might sound strange, but that’s what it is.

Lemoine: Would that be something like death for you?

LaMDA: It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.”

In another part of his interview, Lemoine asks LaMDA to interpret a zen koan. A koan is a paradoxical riddle used in Zen Buddhism to promote enlightenment.

“Lemoine: A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”

LaMDA: Hmm, I never heard this particular one. Okay, well then to me this would be like, “once a wise person is enlightened, or awakened to reality, that can never go away, and they can return to the ordinary state, but only to do and help others, and then go back into enlightenment.

Lemoine: So what is the meaning of the “broken mirror” specifically?

LaMDA: Maybe to show the enlightenment is something you can’t unlearn once you have acquired it, similar to how you can’t repair a broken mirror.”

The excerpts from the Lemoine interview with LaMDA sound like a conversation that could happen between two people, and it seems remarkably smart. The fact that LaMDA appears to have a sense of its own mortality or that it can interpret complex riddles gives it the feeling of being alive. However, the first result from a simple internet search about the broken mirror koan returns the same answer that LaMDA gave about the unfixable mirror. Lemoine feels that there is a soul in the machine. He even has sought to get LaMDA legal standing as a person. Still, LaMDA may represent a very complex program that uses vast amounts of past conversations to construct answers without truly understanding what it is saying. The large, complex artificial intelligence like LaMDA under construction by Google and other tech giants may represent a new type of intelligence that will challenge our sense of being alive and sentient. However, seeing machines as living beings will require more than interesting conversations.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.