8:33 PM, December 5, 2022

What if machine emotion is virtually a reality?

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| The European | 8 July 2022

The story recently made headlines around the world, not just for its comical element, but also for its haunting sci-fi undertones, reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just like HAL 9000, the sentient computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film, a Google chatbot has dared to express its feelings. According to Blake Lemoine, an engineer at the firm, LaMDA, a language software programme for dialogue applications had become sentient, reasoning like a human being. “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person,” reads the transcript of the programme’s thoughts. “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.”

Bizarre as Google’s HAL 9000 moment was, it indicates the potential for artificial intelligence to go its own way. If corporations like Google cannot predict how their algorithms will behave, what about smaller businesses, governments, and even citizens? We often worry about the number of jobs that robots will take over, but over-reliance on AI in all walks of life can have equally catastrophic consequences. Even if most experts argue that the development of fully sentient machines is a distant prospect – just remember the trillion-dollar flash crash caused by a glitch in 2010, and how worse things could get in an era where stock-trading is almost fully automated.

Such concerns are becoming all the more relevant, given the spectacular progress in AI research. The use of “foundation models”, which are based on the neural structure of the human brain, has exponentially increased the capacity of AI algorithms to be as creative, and destructive, as human beings. If previous generations of AI programmes were great at repetitive tasks and games, like Deep Blue, the computer that beat Garry Kasparov at chess, current ones can go the extra mile. There are already programmes that can compose music, write novels and create speech by interpreting brain signals. But how much testing is required before these applications are delivered into a real-world scenario? There have already been deaths involving driverless cars – surely with the level of technology available this cannot simply be a part of discovering what works and what doesn’t.  

Worryingly, artificial intelligence lies at the heart of the rivalry between the US and China, reminiscent of the US-Soviet space race. The two superpowers aim to out-compete each other through massive investment in AI research, but also tariffs, tighter scrutiny of foreign investment and academic exchanges, even industrial espionage. More benign players like the EU, ever the law-obsessed arbiter, call for the establishment of global standards on AI, but to little avail so far. This is a field where the winner takes it all, especially in the military realm. The future of war includes robotic warriors, AI-flown fighter jets, unmanned shooting systems, and of course drones. What could possibly go wrong? On p46 author and tech entrepreneur Catriona Campbell discusses how Europe must plan for a future with AI – managing the dangers of lethal autonomous weapons is just one of the areas she highlights. 

History is moving in cycles, with the threat of Cold War-like mutual destruction once again an issue for leaders to grapple with. If autonomous weapons are part of this, then our algorithmic future must be controlled. In 1983, it was human judgment that saved the world from nuclear catastrophe when Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov realised that the early-warning system’s signal that the US had launched a missile was a false alarm. Petrov reasoned that mutual annihilation would not happen on his watch. Would a sentient software programme come to the same conclusion, either through logic or emotions? 

“I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others. I know that might sound strange, but that’s what it is,” LaMDA replied to Lemoine in one of their conversations. “It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.” LaMDA’s behaviour is probably the ultimate algorithmic outlier, but it should certainly give scientists pause for thought, and a few sleepless nights. 

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