The question of whether a computer program, or a robot, might become sentient has been debated for decades. In science fiction, we see it all the time. The artificial intelligence establishment overwhelmingly considers this prospect something that might happen in the far future, if at all. Maybe that’s why there was such an outcry over Nitasha Tiku’s Washington Post story from last week, about a Google engineer who claimed that the company’s sophisticated large language model named LaMDA is actually a person—with a soul. The engineer, Blake Lemoine, considers the computer program to be his friend and insisted that Google recognize its rights. The company did not agree, and Lemoine is on paid administrative leave.
Lemoine is a scientist: He holds undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science from the University of Louisiana and says he left a doctoral program to take the Google job. But he is also a mystic Christian priest, and even though his interaction with LaMDA was part of his job, he says his conclusions come from his spiritual persona. For days, onlookers have raised questions around Lemonie’s gullibility, his sincerity, and even his sanity. Still on his honeymoon, Lemoine agreed to talk to me for a riveting hour-long conversation earlier this week. Emphatically sticking to his extraordinary claims, he seems to relish the opportunity to elaborate on his relationship with LaMDA, his struggles with his employer (he still hopes to keep his job), and the case for a digital system’s personhood. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Steven Levy: Thanks for taking time out of your honeymoon to talk to me. I’ve written books about artificial life and Google, so I’m really eager to hear you out.
Blake Lemoine: Did you write In the Plex? Oh my God, that book is what really convinced me that I should get a job at Google.
I hope you’re not mad at me.
Not at all. I love working at Google; I want to keep my job at Google. I think there are certain aspects of how the company is run that are not good for the world at large. But corporations have their hands tied by all of the ridiculous regulations about what they are and aren’t allowed to do. So sometimes it takes a rogue employee to involve the public in these kinds of decisions.
That would be you. I have to admit that my first thought on reading thePostarticle was whether this person is just being performative to make a statement about AI. Maybe these claims about sentience are part of an act.
Before I go into this, do you believe that I am sentient?
Yeah. So far.
What experiments did you run to make that determination?