Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Sentient AI? What’s going on? Phenomena are no longer what they seem. We need new concepts.

Here’s a more or less arbitrarily selected tweet about a Google engineer who believes that a chatbot, LaMDA, derived from a large language model (LLM) is sentient:

That story has been all over my local Twitterverse for the last two days. A somewhat different kind of tweet inspired by that incident gives rise to a discussion about the relationship between animism and pansychism (though I don’t believe that term is used), belief systems holding that sentience pervades the universe, and the believe of this particular Google engineer, though he is by no means the only one who believes AIs are now exhibiting sentience.

Finally a tweet purporting to show how many parameters an artificial neural network must have in order to exhibit signs of consciousness. I recognized the tweet as satire, which it is, but if you look through the tweet stream you’ll see that some took it seriously. Why?

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What’s going on here? Is the fabric of rational belief becoming unravelled? Are the End Times approaching?

Quickly and informally, I believe that bulk of our ‘common sense’ vocabulary was shrink-wrapped to fit the world that existed in, say, the late 19th century. That world included mechanical calculators and tabulating machines (I believe that’s how IBM started, tabulating census data). As long as digital computers mostly did those two things they weren’t particularly problematic. Sure, there was 1950s & 60s talk of ’thinking machines’, but that died out, and Stanley Kubrick gave us HAL, but that was clearly science FICTION. No problem.

Now it’s clear that things have changed and will be changing more. Computers are doing things that cannot be readily accommodated to that late-19th century conceptual system. There’s no longer a place for them in the ontology (to use the term as it is now used in computer science and AI). We can’t just add new categories off to the side somewhere or near the top. Why not? Because computers are, in some obvious sense, clearly inanimate things, like rocks and water and so forth. Those are at the bottom of the ontology. Yet they’re now speaking fluently, which is something only humans did, and we’re at the top of the ontology. So now we’ve got to revise the whole ontology, top to bottom.

What about this Google engineer who sensed that LaMDA was sentient? He sensed that something new and different was going on in LaMDA. I think he’s right about that. So how do you express that? He chose concepts from the existing repertoire and, sentience seemed the best one to use. We don’t have a common term for what he experienced.

In my own thinking I experience a similar problem. It’s clear to me that GPT-3 is NOT thinking in any common sense of the term. But it’s not clear that calculation is a particularly good term either, though, in a sense, that IS what is going on, for it runs on computer hardware constructed for the purpose of calculation in the most general sense of the term. But that general sense does not align well with the commonsense notion of calculation, which is closely allied with arithmetic. As commonly understood, arithmetic is very different from string processing, such as alphabetizing a list or sorting of any kind. The fact that the same electronic device can do either with easy, that is not easily encompassed within common-sense terms, which mostly just elide the difficulties.

Brian Cantwell Smith has proposed “reckoning” as the term for what AI engines do. But he sees it as being in opposition to “judgement,” which is fine, but I’m not sure it’s good for my purposes. Even if I could come up with a term, it would be a term specialized for use in intelletual discourse. How would it play in general public-facing discourse?

It is easy for Google can lay the engineer off without pay. Even if he goes away, the problem he was struggling with won’t go away. It is only going to get worse. And there is no quick fix. The fabric of common sense must be reworked, top to bottom, inside and out, and specialized conceptual repertoires as well. This is a project for generations.

The world IS changing.

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As a useful counterpoint, see my essay, Dr. Tezuka’s Ontology Laboratory and the Discovery of Japan. It’s about Tezuka’s science-fiction trilogy, Lost World, Metropolis, and Next World, in which Tezuka is clearly rethinking the ontological structure of the world from top to bottom. Categories are confused and boundaries are crossed. But the provocation isn’t the rise of computers, it’s the end of World War II, which the Japanese lost.

1 comment:

  1. " There are other advantages in liberating the category 'writing systems' from the burden of having to represent spoken utterances. One has already been mentioned, that it allows us to locate cognitive change in a much more plausible evolutionary context and avoids the nonsense of imagining rationality to be confined to those who use something like our own alphabets to store and transmit information...... What if- instead of fetishing utterance by placing it as the contested centre of the dyad literacy/ orality- we thought of writing as just one variety of a much wider set of graphic symbols that also represented numbers, quantities, and things, and the relationship between them?

    G. Woolf: Ancient Illiteracy