Last week, an IT engineer was put on leave, after claiming that a chatbot he’d been working on had become sentient. Global commentators rushed to their keyboards, to argue about robots and consciousness, and to ask if this program had finally aced the Turing Test.
The landmark test of whether Artificial Intelligence has achieved human-level cognition was devised by Alan Turing in 1950. He argued that a computer could be judged to be ‘thinking,’ if it could fool a person into identifying it as human. By that definition, the chatbot LaMDA passed, because the engineer in question was apparently fooled. This chatbot may just be an extraordinary mimic, but I wonder if we’ll look back on this news as a defining moment in our relationship with the robots.
The religions all argue that humans are special; but this doesn’t necessarily give us supremacy. While in our current era humans dominate, the arc of history shows that this is unlikely to be a permanent situation on this planet for all time. So the question may not be if Artificial Intelligence will take over, but when; unless of course the dolphins or the aliens get there first. While this may be tomorrow’s problem, I wonder: if we could’ve travelled back in time to warn our ancestors about their inventions, might we have counselled them to be more careful about sugar or guns, or cigarettes or the combustion engine?
When I think about how far we’ve come, in addressing the rights of humans of all races, and ages and abilities; of women; and of animals, I wonder whether we need to brace ourselves to be magnanimous towards AI next. Giving computers the ability to behave like humans reminds me that God made us in his image too. While over the years we’ve denied each other rights for a whole range of reasons, we’ve now learned the wisdom of treating our fellow creatures with dignity and respect.
So I greet this chatbot news with curiosity and not fear; and I wonder when we’ll start having the conversation, about living well with these manufactured creations of ours, in a way that all may flourish.
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.