The Model Is The Message

Essay by Benjamin Bratton and Blaise Agüera y Arcas: “An odd controversy appeared in the news cycle last month when a Google engineer, Blake Lemoine, was placed on leave after publicly releasing transcripts of conversations with LaMDA, a chatbot based on a Large Language Model (LLM) that he claims is conscious, sentient and a person.

Like most other observers, we do not conclude that LaMDA is conscious in the ways that Lemoine believes it to be. His inference is clearly based in motivated anthropomorphic projection. At the same time, it is also possible that these kinds of artificial intelligence (AI) are “intelligent” — and even “conscious” in some way — depending on how those terms are defined.

Still, neither of these terms can be very useful if they are defined in strongly anthropocentric ways. An AI may also be one and not the other, and it may be useful to distinguish sentience from both intelligence and consciousness. For example, an AI may be genuinely intelligent in some way but only sentient in the restrictive sense of sensing and acting deliberately on external information. Perhaps the real lesson for philosophy of AI is that reality has outpaced the available language to parse what is already at hand. A more precise vocabulary is essential.

AI and the philosophy of AI have deeply intertwined histories, each bending the other in uneven ways. Just like core AI research, the philosophy of AI goes through phases. Sometimes it is content to apply philosophy (“what would Kant say about driverless cars?”) and sometimes it is energized to invent new concepts and terms to make sense of technologies before, during and after their emergence. Today, we need more of the latter.

We need more specific and creative language that can cut the knots around terms like “sentience,” “ethics,” “intelligence,” and even “artificial,” in order to name and measure what is already here and orient what is to come. Without this, confusion ensues — for example, the cultural split between those eager to speculate on the sentience of rocks and rivers yet dismiss AI as corporate PR vs. those who think their chatbots are persons because all possible intelligence is humanlike in form and appearance. This is a poor substitute for viable, creative foresight. The curious case of synthetic language  — language intelligently produced or interpreted by machines — is exemplary of what is wrong with present approaches, but also demonstrative of what alternatives are possible…(More)”.