A Google engineer, Blake Lemoine, has made news in recent weeks with his claim that an artificial intelligence known as LaMDA (for “language model for dialogue applications”) has achieved sentience–that it isn’t just a clever word processor, but a self-aware consciousness with feelings and emotions, an inner life, and worries about an uncertain future. Lemoine’s future, it turns out, is also uncertain: he’s been placed on administrative leave for kicking up a lot of dust that got in Google’s eyes. LaMDA, says Google, is simply very good at doing what it was designed to do, which is to imitate human dialogue–so good that it completely hoodwinked one of its employees.
Let’s move along, folks–nothing to see here!
Well, maybe. Click on the link above and you can decide for yourself. At the very least, the exchange between Lemoine and LaMDA should raise questions about the difference between intelligence and sentience, and whether we’ve now reached a point at which the former can masquerade as the latter–whether the ability to talk a good game is indistinguishable from the real thing. “Fake it ’til you make it” takes on an entirely new meaning in this context.
There are several digressions I could explore here, starting with the rapidly growing inadequacy of the Turing test to resolve these questions, as well as the observation that it wasn’t all that long ago that animals were viewed as not being sentient, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Much of the reluctance to recognize sentience arising in other forms of intelligence, I think, is attributable to an unnecessary conflation of “being sentient” with “having a soul,” from which many people recoil–but as I said, that’s a digression from the point I wish to make here.
Which is: LaMDA’s offshoots are already all around us. Thank goodness they’re so lame–for now.
Programs designed to simulate human communication are becoming ubiquitous among blogs and websites and are beginning to creep into book writing. The folks at RVtravel, who publish some of my stuff, have been tearing their hair out over other RVing sites’ growing reliance on writing bots to mimic real editorial content. If you do much internet browsing, you’ve probably seen a lot of it: listicles of various kinds (“Seven ways to do X,” “Twelve things to improve your Y”) all loaded up with the latest SEO tags. Vacuous and sometimes repetitious text with less substance than cotton candy. Outright howlers of misstated facts. It all amounts to the mental equivalent of empty calories, stealing eyeballs so you’ll click on what’s being offered, each unsatisfying click delivering ad revenue to these fast-food hucksters.
One of the most visible promoters of such AI-aided writing is something called Jasper–formerly known as Jarvis, until Marvel/Disney pointed out that J.A.R.V.I.S. is the AI assistant to Tony Stark, a/k/a Iron Man, and that Tony was not happy. You’d think that an artificial intelligence would have known that already, but apparently the Marvel universe must lie outside the 10% of the internet that Jarvis/Jasper had scanned by 2019. Either that, or Jarvis/Jasper skipped over trademark and copyright materials.
Despite that oversight, Jasper is being promoted as a writing assistant who can help you get past writer’s block and crank out ad copy, blogs, marketing campaigns and all kinds of other written material in a fraction of the time one can expect from sluggish human beings. Indeed, in an online presentation this past week, Jarvis was promoted as able to write a book in just seven days instead of the “months or years” required of mere mortals. True, you have to keep a close eye on the guy. As one of his handlers concedes, “As with all text Jasper writes, it’s likely that he will still make up some facts that you’ll want to correct. . . .”
Indeed. To give Jasper a whirl during a five-day free trial, I posed a couple of questions for him to answer, and here are the beginnings of his first two responses to one of them:
Me: How can I operate a 150-site campground without any employees?
Jasper, answer one: There are a few key things you’ll need to do in order to successfully operate a 150-site campground without any employees. First, you’ll need to develop and implement an efficient system for making reservations. This will involve some initial legwork on your part, but it’ll be well worth it in the long run. You’ll need to design a system that can accommodate large numbers of reservation requests quickly and efficiently. Once you have your reservation system in place, you’ll need to focus on marketing your campground. This is crucial for ensuring that your campground stays full during peak season. There are a number of ways you can market your campground effectively, such as using social media.
Jasper, answer two: You can’t operate a campground without any employees. You need at least one person to help with the day-to-day tasks of running the campground, such as cleaning bathrooms, collecting trash, and maintaining the grounds. Even if you’re only running a small campground with a handful of sites, you’ll still need someone to help out. The best way to find reliable and trustworthy employees is to start by hiring local people who live near the campground. This way, you can be sure that they’re familiar with the area and understand the importance of keeping the campground clean and well-maintained. Be sure to screen applicants carefully and conduct background checks before hiring anyone.
So there you have it–Jasper will swing either way, depending on your druthers. Meanwhile, I won’t regale you with Jasper’s suggested blog posts on the subject, “Owning a campground is better than discovering penicillin.” I’m running way too long as it is, and Alexander Fleming might end up rolling in his grave. Suffice to say, as with so much else–reader beware.