LaMDA is not sentient

You might have read news stories about a Google engineer who recently claimed that an AI language model (LaMDA) is sentient.

As many people have pointed out, LaMDA is definitely not sentient. They are correct. I also happen to think that the socio-cultural phenomenon of news articles about whether or not some certain AI is sentient, or conscious, or “human,” etc., makes for far more interesting research than an AI-sentience program would.

Nonetheless, this makes for a good opportunity to offer another take on why it is false to say that LaMDA is sentient. Typically, you’ll read responses (good ones!) — like those I linked above — which go at the question in (broadly) two kinds of ways (or both of those ways). The first way is to talk about how AI like LaMDA are mere “pattern-matchers”: they manipulate incredibly massive databases of language examples, which makes them really good autocompletes (as Gary Marcus points out here). The second way is to talk about how sentience depends on chemical signals (as Ned Block points out here). These are good, accurate points that I agree with. But the one I will make is completely different. It relies on Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I am sure helpful points could be made about what exactly we mean when we say that something is sentient. Let’s put this aside for now and assume our vague, varied intuitions are good enough (they are, for the point I’ll make). Now, a la Wittgenstein, let’s ask this: how are words like ‘sentient,’ ‘conscious,’ etc. used? How such words are used might tell us something about how comfortable we ought to be using such words with certain applications (this might or might not be a pun or both).

We can certainly make up stories about how “sentient” might have ended up being correctly used to talk about things like LaMDA.

Suppose some mysterious ancient being had created something like LaMDA — call it ALMDA (“ancient language model dialogue applications”) — some time before humans came around. Ignore all the superficial problems with that scenario (like how the mysterious ancient beings would have known English, for example), for a moment. Then suppose, at some point prior to our own computational inventions (or even theoretical formulations), we encountered ALMDA “in nature”. It probably matters, for this scenario, how we would have first encountered ALMDA (if it were in a human-lookalike vessel, for example, it is trivially reasonable to think we would have assumed ALMDA was sentient: we would have assumed it was human!). Let’s suppose, then, that we encountered some sort of console-with-instructions on how to communicate with ALMDA (or something such that we’d be unlikely to call it “human” or any other sentience-subsuming thing).

The takeaway I will suggest is this: we could well have referred to ALMDA — whatever we were talking with on the console (or perhaps the console itself, etc.) — as “sentient,” in such a scenario. We would, indeed, have had little reason to question ALMDA’s “sentience.” Even if we later found out exactly how ALMDA worked, nevertheless, the matter of sentience would be a non-question: ALMDA would have always been among the things which we’d always called sentient. Such “sentience” would simply be a part of our language.

LaMDA is not like ALMDA. We did not discover LaMDA in nature. We had a use for “sentient” prior to LaMDA, and prior to any like-AI. Similarly, our word “sentient” is not like the imagined “sentient” used in the ALMDA thought experiment. That word has an (imagined) entirely different historical evolution. It is a different word. To call LaMDA “sentient” is to attempt to make a different use out of our word “sentient.” However, it seems to me, nothing in our own linguistic history (up to this point) sanctions us to say that LaMDA (or any similar AI) is sentient. In other words, nothing sanctions this way of using the word “sentient”: Google engineers are not the final arbiters of meaning, and cannot gaslight signs into meaning whatever they wish. This is another reason to think it is false to say that LaMDA is sentient.

Posted by Steven McGannon


Do you ever wonder how English got the “han/hanen” pronoun?

There was once a time when children in English-speaking countries were assigned one of two pronoun pairs at birth. Nowadays, most people probably don’t even remember what those were.

While it’s easy to imagine that we always used the “han/hanen” pronoun pair, in fact, these words only came into use after centuries of a problematic deployment of an archaic binary pronoun division. And it was not these archaic English forerunners which gave way to our current usage.

But first, what were those forerunners?

There was a time when a child was assigned either the “he/his” pronoun pair or the “she/her” pronoun pair. Historians are divided on what the precise factors were which went into making the decision about which pair a child received, but there is a strong consensus that those who received “she/her” were designated to a lower-level status in society.

At one time, those designated with the “she/her” pronoun were prohibited from participating in even the most basic elements of society, such as working and voting, let alone activities like pursuing a hobby, higher education, or political leadership.

Additionally, for centuries there was almost no say in which category you were designated — once you were assigned, that was it. This was true even as late as the 2020s. 

So, where did we get “han/hanen”? 

While no one knows exactly how this pronoun pair entered into popular usage in the English language, historians hypothesize that our word “han” derives originally from the Finnish word “hän” (pronounced the same as in English). In Finnish, “hän” is just like our “han”: it is one pronoun pair which can be used to refer to anybody.

Further evidence for the Finnish derivation is supported by the fact that our possessive pronoun — hanen — also mirrors the much older Finnish word “hänen” (which is, itself, a possessive pronoun for the Finnish “hän”, and is also pronounced the same as in English). 

Sociologist Eeva Karjalainen has conjectured that the adoption of “han” in English may have been somehow connected to the increase in the recognition of “they” as a singular pronoun in English around the turn of the 21st century. It is notable, for instance, that “hän” was often translated to English as “they” during that time.

While it is unclear exactly how we borrowed these words from Finnish, what is clear is that our abandonment of the archaic, stratifying pronoun system would eventually help lead (along with the overthrow of the system and, thus, systemic racism) to the gender-equal society we know today. 

Modern day English speakers should feel a deep gratitude toward the Finns, who long ago found the binary pronoun division deeply inadequate and deeply flawed.