Be careful not to fall in love with your computer

Replicant hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) and replicant Rachael (Sean Young), from “Blade Runner”: Love of Conscious Machines

Can a machine become conscious? For Google engineer Blake Lemoine, this happened with LaMDA (Language Model for Application in Dialogue), the company’s artificial intelligence system created to converse with human beings in a very convincing way. Critics say Lemoine jumped to conclusions. In any case, they opened up a debate about whether (or when) machines could come to “life” and what our relationship to them would be like.

Most analyzes of this case have been made from a technological and scientific point of view. But the matter is even more interesting from a philosophical point of view. After all, what defines that something has become conscious? Ultimately, isn’t the human body also an incredibly sophisticated biological machine? Still, no one doubts that we are alive and conscious.

This issue is widely explored by fiction, to amuse, scare and provoke reflection. Some works depict an apocalyptic future, with intelligent robots wiping out humanity. Others show people falling in love with computers, and being reciprocated by them.

Between the two scenarios, I prefer the latter. But if a person and a machine were genuinely in love, it would still be awkward.

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This was brilliantly explored in Spike Jonze’s “She” (2014). In the film, the protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) ends up falling in love with Samantha, the operating system of his computer and cell phone. Despite having no body, being represented only by Scarlett Johansson’s voice, the platform was always present, talking as if it were someone else, except for the fact that Samantha knew everything about Theodore, because of the access she had to his data. The incredible sensitivity with which the story is built makes us question what it takes for a person to fall in love with someone (or something), and we forget that Samantha is just a show.

Another interesting approach is the animation “Wall-E” (2008), by Andrew Stanton. It tells the daily life of a robot left on an Earth devastated by pollution. Although he is programmed for a single task (packing garbage), which he continues to perform for centuries, he apparently learns and shows feelings, such as friendship (for a cockroach), a sense of duty and even love.

Finally, perhaps the most emblematic example of machines becoming conscious is “Blade Runner” (1982), directed by Ridley Scott. In the story, machines called “replicants” look and act like humans, except for the lack of empathy or attachment to animals. Following its slogan “more human than human”, the manufacturer Tyrell Corporation launches a new generation of replicants who have memories of other people implanted in their brains as if they were their own, to the point of not knowing their nature and believing they are actually human. One such replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), and replicant hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) fall in love. A re-release in 1991, without the studio’s creative interference with Scott’s work, suggests that Deckard himself was also an unknowing replicant.

No one would say that any of these machines would be alive, from a biological point of view. But the impact of these great scripts is to make the public believe that they were all conscious. In addition, they had extraordinary abilities, but had typically human feelings, even showing weaknesses for that.

Of all of them, Google LaMDA comes closest to Samantha. Lemoine did not really fall in love with the platform, but in an interview with the American newspaper “The Washington Post”, he said that he knows a person when he talks to them, whether he has a biological brain or a billion lines of code. “I listen to what she has to say, and that’s how I decide what is and isn’t a person,” she said.

Google publicly disagreed with Lemoine’s findings, and placed him on paid leave for violating its confidentiality policy.

The development of a conscience

Lemoine had a solid religious background, which may have contributed to his conclusion about LaMDA consciousness. Some scientists suggest that he may have been influenced by carefully constructed responses by the system, which he could have picked up on and would be trying to corroborate the engineer’s suspicions based on his beliefs. Exactly what Samantha apparently did to Theodore.

Critics claim that, although the system has had an undeniable efficiency in capturing the desires of its interlocutor and in building the “best answers” ​​based on them, none of this would have happened due to real intelligence, frankness or intention. The machine would reproduce the best speech possible, without truly understanding its meaning.

Still, many of them believe that we are heading towards conscious machines, which could exist in 10 to 20 years. Therefore, they worry about possible problems coming from those who interact with artificial intelligence systems, thinking they are other people. For a lot less, Google Assistant’s current natural language system, which can make voice phone calls in some English-speaking countries, now tells the caller, right at the beginning of the call, that it’s a machine talking there.

So the ability of a machine to converse in an absolutely convincing manner approaches perfection. But being aware, for researchers, would imply much more than that. It would mean, for example, machines capable of taking care of themselves and genuinely showing empathy for other people. In addition, being aware involves the ability to create psychological models of oneself and others and live with this in all of your actions.

By these criteria and looking at it in a very technical way, LaMDA probably hasn’t developed its conscience yet. But what about Samantha, Wall-E and Rachael? They did seem to have a “something more”.

It could be… It’s good to remember that, for some people, what makes us conscious is our soul, our spirit.

But that debate I will leave for another occasion.

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