“A Google software engineer was suspended after going public with his claims of encountering ‘sentient’ artificial intelligence on the company’s servers,” writes Bloomberg, “spurring a debate about how and whether AI can achieve consciousness.”
“Researchers say it’s an unfortunate distraction from more pressing issues in the industry.”
Google put him on leave for sharing confidential information and said his concerns had no basis in fact — a view widely held in the AI community. What’s more important, researchers say, is addressing issues like whether AI can engender real-world harm and prejudice, whether actual humans are exploited in the training of AI, and how the major technology companies act as gatekeepers of the development of the tech.
Lemoine’s stance may also make it easier for tech companies to abdicate responsibility for AI-driven decisions, said Emily Bender, a professor of computational linguistics at the University of Washington. “Lots of effort has been put into this sideshow,” she said. “The problem is, the more this technology gets sold as artificial intelligence — let alone something sentient — the more people are willing to go along with AI systems” that can cause real-world harm. Bender pointed to examples in job hiring and grading students, which can carry embedded prejudice depending on what data sets were used to train the AI. If the focus is on the system’s apparent sentience, Bender said, it creates a distance from the AI creators’ direct responsibility for any flaws or biases in the programs….
“Instead of discussing the harms of these companies,” such as sexism, racism and centralization of power created by these AI systems, everyone “spent the whole weekend discussing sentience,” Timnit Gebru, formerly co-lead of Google’s ethical AI group, said on Twitter. “Derailing mission accomplished.”
The Washington Post seems to share their concern. First they report more skepticism about a Google engineer’s claim that the company’s LaMDA chatbot-building system had achieved sentience. “Both Google and outside experts on AI say that the program does not, and could not possibly, possess anything like the inner life he imagines. We don’t need to worry about LaMDA turning into Skynet, the malevolent machine mind from the Terminator movies, anytime soon.
But the Post adds that “there is cause for a different set of worries, now that we live in the world Turing predicted: one in which computer programs are advanced enough that they can seem to people to possess agency of their own, even if they actually don’t….”
While Google has distanced itself from Lemoine’s claims, it and other industry leaders have at other times celebrated their systems’ ability to trick people, as Jeremy Kahn pointed out this week in his Fortune newsletter, “Eye on A.I.” At a public event in 2018, for instance, the company proudly played recordings of a voice assistant called Duplex, complete with verbal tics like “umm” and “mm-hm,” that fooled receptionists into thinking it was a human when it called to book appointments. (After a backlash, Google promised the system would identify itself as automated.)
“The Turing Test’s most troubling legacy is an ethical one: The test is fundamentally about deception,” Kahn wrote. “And here the test’s impact on the field has been very real and disturbing.” Kahn reiterated a call, often voiced by AI critics and commentators, to retire the Turing test and move on. Of course, the industry already has, in the sense that it has replaced the Imitation Game with more scientific benchmarks.
But the Lemoine story suggests that perhaps the Turing test could serve a different purpose in an era when machines are increasingly adept at sounding human. Rather than being an aspirational standard, the Turing test should serve as an ethical red flag: Any system capable of passing it carries the danger of deceiving people.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.