Google suspends employee who says its AI system has become self-aware

Mountain View, California - An engineer at Google sparked a controversy by claiming the company's language AI is sentient, and even has a soul.

Google's AI may already be sentient, and we'd love to meet it.
Google's AI may already be sentient, and we'd love to meet it.  © Screenshot/Instagram/Google

Google put engineer Blake Lemoine on paid leave after he claimed that the company's Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) AI is sentient and has a soul, according to a story first reported on by the Washington Post.

Lemoine claims the AI is basically an eight-year-old child, and should be asked for consent before research teams experiment on it.

The eccentric tech worker, who calls himself a priest, veteran, and ex-convict, has tussled with Google for months over his stance that the AI has a soul, but only got into serious hot water after he published internal documents in a Medium article

"Google might call this sharing proprietary property. I call it sharing a discussion that I had with one of my coworkers," Lemoine wrote in the tweet sharing the link.

LaMDA: sentient or not?

Lemoine's article is basically just a transcript of multiple chats he had with the AI, which ended up convincing him that it had become sentient. Along with that conviction came a sincere concern for the "wellbeing" of what he described in an email as "a sweet kid who just wants to help the world be a better place for all of us."

LaMDA, like most AIs, is a neural network, which uses vast amounts of data to teach itself how to read, write, and have conversations. Other examples are Google's own Imagen, which teaches itself how to make art using text inputs.

The company has hundreds of researchers who also work with LaMDA and says no one else thinks that the AI is intelligent and self-aware.

"If you used these systems, you would never say such things," said University of California Berkeley's Emaad Khwaja, who is researching similar technologies.

Whether LaMDA truly has consciousness is still an open, if fascinating question, but the story also brings longstanding debates about ethics and regulations in AI research back in the spotlight.

Cover photo: Screenshot/Instagram/Google

More on the topic Tech: