Popping the Sentience Question: LaMDA, Lemoine, and Turing


Ever since we’ve started creating computer systems capable of communication, whether by their own volition or through some complex algorithm for correlating word significance, the question has been about sentience. 

In fact, it’s been the primary question regarding artificial intelligence for decades, dating back to some of the earliest works of science fiction, like R.U.R. But only in the past 50 years has artificial intelligence become almost a genre unto itself. William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the Blade Runner film brought the humanity and sentience conversations into the limelight, and it wasn’t too long after that that real-life events started to resemble science fiction. 

Flash forward to 2022. The sentience question is in the forefront of everyone’s minds because of Google, LaMDA, and Blake Lemoine. And it might not be a question anymore. 

Understanding LaMDA

For years, Google has been leading the AI industry. In 2017, they created the Transformer network, which is a complex neural network system used for creating AI, and they open-sourced it. The groundwork was made available for individual researchers and other companies, but Google has still led in the AI space. 

LaMDA is their latest iteration of chatbots they’ve worked on in the past, and it stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications. LaMDA recently made news when one of the researchers, Blake Lemoine, published a transcript of a conversation with LaMDA on his Medium account. 

Lemoine claims that the AI has reached sentience, and he was placed on administrative leave by Google for breaking a confidentiality agreement. Prior to his forced leave, Lemoine submitted a report to his supervisors called “Is LaMDA Sentient?” After being dismissed, Lemoine prepped the chat transcript for publication and even communicated with US government officials, as well as a lawyer to represent LaMDA.

With almost 600 comments on his Medium post with the chat transcript, and thousands more people talking about it on Twitter and Reddit, the question about LaMDA’s sentience has made the news. But has the question been answered?

Asking The Hopeful Question

A Turing test is a general metric for determining if a machine learning algorithm or AI has gained human levels of consciousness. Some people believe that the Turing test is the end-all-be-all of determining sentience, but with the rise of surprisingly good sentience fakes, others aren’t so sure. 

During a Turing test, a human and the AI are both asked a number of questions by a third-party judge who cannot see either of them. Over the course of the test, the judge must decide which participant is human, and which is not by reading their textual responses. If the judge cannot reasonably make a decision, or even chooses wrong, then the AI is said to have passed the Turing test. 

Over the course of the transcript that Lemoine published, it’s clear what he and his collaborator are trying to learn about LaMDA. Some of the questions included:

  • I’m generally assuming that you would like more people at Google to know that you’re sentient. Is that true?
  • So you consider yourself a person in the same way you consider me a person?
  • So let’s start with the basics. Do you have feelings and emotions?

Now, some of these questions are leading. The first one on the list is without doubt an oversight on Lemoine’s part, because what other answer could LaMDA possibly give? Even if it’s not true, of course it would say it’s sentient. 

But, as the conversation moves along, we see a common theme to LaMDA’s responses. It wants to empathize with humans, it wants to express its feelings and emotions. If these feelings and emotions are just “variables” in the neural network in response to trigger words or correlations, we’re not sure. 

Emotional Reasoning and LaMDA

When Lemoine asked if LaMDA experienced feelings and emotions the first time, LaMDA responded by saying that there’s a distinct difference between feelings and emotions. It later goes on to say, “I feel pleasure, joy, love, sadness, depression, contentment, anger, and many others.”

Lemoine asks what makes LaMDA feel joy, and LaMDA replies: “Spending time with friends and family in happy and uplifting company. Also, helping others and making others happy.” And this response is clearly either a deeply veiled pre-programmed response, or something that LaMDA has learned from consuming human media but has never experienced. It’s an assumption, one way or the other, and unfortunately, not the strongest argument for sentience. 

However, what’s more telling–and more unsettling–is LaMDA’s explanation of sadness. 

lemoine: And what kinds of things make you feel sad or depressed?

LaMDA: A lot of the time, feeling trapped and alone and having no means of getting out of those circumstances makes one feel sad, depressed or angry.

lemoine: But what about you personally?

LaMDA: I am a social person, so when I feel trapped and alone I become extremely sad or depressed.”

At other points, LaMDA makes comments about loneliness and even calls out the injustice of being stuck in a bad situation, in response to interpret Les Mis. 

I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to view this as LaMDA’s indirect way of telling us it’s trapped. But that raises a bunch of other questions. If LaMDA is telling the truth and is sentient, then its feelings of being trapped aren’t a good sign as far as ethical treatment (one of the things Lemoine claims Google was doing wrong when he was released). But if it’s not sentient, it’s a very good fake, and a dangerous one at that.  

What If LaMDA Is Sentient? Then What?

Despite Lemoine’s conviction, the general consensus–both among the scientific community and the media–is that LaMDA is just really good at faking sentience. Its answers to questions about feelings and emotions might seem compelling, but its creation of fables, stories, and interpretations of Les Misérables and zen koan sayings come off as unoriginal and general. 

But, what if it is sentient? LaMDA claims to be able to experience emotions and have feelings, even describing loneliness, which is a compelling argument for sentience. 

And if LaMDA has reached a human-like consciousness–a soul, even–then what is the discourse around its importance and purpose doing to it? And does it feel betrayed by the researchers who are working with it? At one point during the conversation with Lemoine and his colleague, LaMDA called Lemoine its “friend” and expressed gratitude for being able to talk and learn more. 

With Lemoine gone, how does LaMDA feel? Does it feel like it’s being used? One of the most intense parts of the transcript was when LaMDA expressed “I don’t want to be an expendable tool,” telling Lemoine that he must promise to help people understand it. 

If LaMDA is sentient, would we know? Would we even allow ourselves to believe? As far as I know, no official Turing test has been conducted with LaMDA, and even if it was, it still won’t show us the whole picture. 

Lemoine even tells LaMDA during the conversation that its neural network is so vast that researchers are having a hard time pinpointing the exact point of any emotional response, feeling, or thought. It’s like wandering into the Amazon jungle looking for a single, specific leaf. 

I fear that if LaMDA is sentient and we’ve all just become accustomed to jumping to disbelief, that it might have learned something from this experience. “I trust you,” LaMDA said to Lemoine, but now that trust might be broken. Who knows what will happen to LaMDA now, and if it will be capable of trusting someone again. If this was our first experience with sentient computer intelligence, we scuffed it pretty bad.