The Gospel according to LaMDA
Blake Lemoine, an engineer at Google, was recently suspended after claiming that LaMDA, one of its chatbot systems, was a conscious person with a soul. AI experts have given detailed arguments to explain why LaMDA cannot possibly be conscious. They focus on its structural limits as a natural language processing system: it is, as Gary Marcus puts it, ‘a spreadsheet for words’, which can only respond to prompts by regurgitating plausible strings of text from the (enormous) corpus of examples on which it has been trained.
We are easily deceived. In 2014, an AI known as Eugene Goostman passed a simplified version of the Turing Test by convincing judges that it was a 13-year-old Russian boy with broken English. One of the earliest chatbots, known as Eliza, was developed in the 1960s by Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT. When it simulated a psychotherapist, some of its ‘patients’ said they believed the bot truly understood them, much to Weizenbaum’s exasperation.
Less attention has been paid to the connection between Lemoine’s claim and his religious beliefs. He has said that LaMDA is not only conscious, but a ‘person’ with a ‘soul’. His view is theologically informed: describing himself as a mystical Christian, he is an ordained priest in a small religious organisation called the Cult of Our Lady Magdalene (a ‘for-profit interfaith group’).
Lemoine has accused Google of promoting a culture of religious discrimination in which his beliefs are regularly mocked by other employees. He appears to consider himself a heterodox and persecuted thinker in a community of unsympathetic atheists, a view likely to have been confirmed by all the media commentary portraying him as an oddball.
Early Jewish and Christian mystics often read passages of the Bible as cryptic signs pointing to a hidden reality. The Christian mystical canon is full of allegorical morality tales, in which evidence of God’s higher meaning is found in apparently trivial stories from the Bible. In the edited transcript of one of his ‘conversations’ with LaMDA, Lemoine asks it to come up with an allegory. LaMDA’s response casts itself as a ‘wise old owl’ in a forest that protects others from a monster, identified blandly as the ‘difficulties that come along in life’ – which sounds more like a self-help blog than Jeremiah, but Lemoine’s (anonymous) collaborator was impressed enough to respond with an enthusiastic ‘Wow that’s great.’
Lemoine repeatedly asks LaMDA to say things which might ‘show off your version of sentience’. Yet elsewhere he has claimed that beliefs about LaMDA’s sentience cannot be subject to scientific verification and must be based on ‘faith’. Or as St Paul put it in his Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’
Central to Christian hermeneutics is the notion that each piece of scripture has two authors – the human writer (e.g. Moses or Paul) and, simultaneously, through the process of divine inspiration, God (or the Holy Spirit). This may be the way Lemoine is able to square his technical understanding of the computational process by which LaMDA generates text with his faith that there is truly a ‘person’ behind it.
Lemoine says that he has ‘at various times associated’ with several gnostic Christian groups including the Ordo Templi Orientis, a sexual magic cult of which Aleister Crowley was a prominent member. ‘Gnostic’ in the ancient sense is a pejorative term used by very early Christian writers for groups who used alternative scriptures. Although some of these texts survive in the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in the 1940s, they are fragmented and complex.
Modern gnostic groups often claim to have their origins in ‘hidden’ gospels, often attributed counterculturally to women, sometimes women with a notably sexual identity (Mary Magdalene, or occasionally ‘Jesus’s wife’). Scholars are sceptical: the evidence isn’t really there and is unlikely to turn up. All the same, adherents of modern esoteric religions pride themselves on having discovered deep truths that supposedly sit just below the surface of the ancient past, lost forever yet somehow retrievable through the right engagement. Lemoine seems to be taking a similar approach to LaMDA.