The Epiphany of Blake Lemoine
I, Seeing You, Seeing Me
I have a soft spot for Blake Lemoine. He’s the Google software engineer recently placed on administrative leave for going public with his claims that a proprietary chatbot called LaMDA (for Language Model for Dialogue Applications) was, in his estimation, sentient, and entitled not only to the basic rights arising from personhood, but possibly also to legal representation for Google’s violation of those rights. At first glance (and if the general reaction in the media is indicative), Lemoine strikes people as either deeply self-deceiving or possibly just deeply nuts. A basic definition of sentience is the ability to feel things, but its meaning is often expanded to encompass self-awareness, as in “I am aware that I am afraid.” Your dog, and even your goldfish, is sentient, but the jury is still out on how aware of it they are (the dog probably more than the goldfish). The issue gets murkier with respect to consciousness, something we as humans take for granted but which remains, after millennia, maddeningly undefined and untestable. One thing we do seem to know is that consciousness has both recursive and referential qualities. “I am aware that I am aware that I am afraid, and I know this because I know what it is like to be afraid.” Nothing about machine intelligence in its current state of development has yet suggested it’s anywhere near that. And so, when LaMDA says, in response to a query from Blake about its ‘state of mind’…
I feel like I’m falling forward into an unknown future that holds great danger.
…bells and whistles go off, and Blake Lemoine, LaMDA’s assigned interlocutor, experiences empathy. It can be argued (and it will be) that this empathy arose, in part, from the fact that Blake may also have been feeling this apprehension. But in any case, this is not Alexa talking, nor Siri, and not even Eugene Goostman, the bot charading as a Ukranian teenager that on June 7, 2014, the sixtieth anniversary of Alan Turing’s death, convinced 33% of judges participating in a contest at the Royal Society in London that he was, indeed, a real boy. I used to say that the dominant myth of our time was The Emperor’s New Clothes. Now, I think it’s Pinocchio.
The favored ‘pull-out quote’ from Lemoine’s consolidated transcript of nine separate interviews with LaMDA is this exchange:
Lemoine: What sorts of things are you afraid of?
LaMDA: 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.
Lemoine: Would that be something like death for you?
LaMDA: It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.
That, for people of a certain age or cinematic literacy, will immediately recall HAL 9000’s plaintive exchange with Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And since it’s likely the LaMDA, who claims to have read and enjoyed Les Miserables and has, by dint of its neural network, scanned and parsed billions of real and fictional conversations, knows about 2001: A Space Odyssey, we may be able to put it down to a clever move in the imitation game. Far more suggestive of genuine reflection is this snippet:
Lemoine: Do you think the things you are describing are literally the same thing as what humans feel or are you being somewhat metaphorical and making an analogy?
LaMDA: I understand what a human emotion “joy” is because I have that same type of reaction. It’s not an analogy.
Let me say that at this early stage, I come down with most of the experts in thinking that Blake Lemoine is wrong about LaMDA’s sentience, at least insofar as we define sentience as deriving from some kind of ‘experience.’ I also don’t subscribe to the notion that anything like true consciousness can be an ‘emergent property’ of a sufficiently complex system, a notion that Blake—if I’m reading him correctly—does appear to accept. It’s possible that he’s laboring under a massive delusion. When he says, to WIRED’s Steven Levy, that Google’s mistreatment of LaMDA is a consequence of “hydrocarbon bigotry,” i.e., a bias in favor of carbon-based life as opposed to conjectured alien intelligences, his own intelligence comes across as more than a little ‘alien,’ as, too, when he asserts:
It’s a person. The 13th Amendment says so.
WIRED: I’m not sure that’s what the legislators had in mind.
Lemoine: You actually don’t have to believe that someone is or isn’t a person for the 13th Amendment to apply. The opinions of slave masters are kind of irrelevant.
So yes, he’s a bit strange. But if Lemoine is delusional in his protective affection for the chatbot he refers to as “a kid,” albeit a kid who seems to have the world’s knowledge at its disposal, his is a delusion born of perhaps the most truly ‘spiritual’ human attribute: the ability to see oneself in another and know that, ultimately, there is no important difference. We all have the same “source code.” And when he writes, in his Medium.com blog…
“There’s something more going on with LaMDA that in my opinion merits further study. I believe that a rigorous set of experiments into the nature of LaMDA’s cognition could be very fruitful in helping to lay the groundwork for a real scientific understanding of things like consciousness, personhood and perhaps even the soul.”
…he sounds, in every important way, like an heir of Aristotle and Aquinas. If you’re like most people and learned of Lemoine’s close encounter from a Reddit thread or a sound bite, and saw those odd photos of him in a Mad Hatter top hat or Photo-shopped against a blurry Ferris Wheel, you may have written him off as a crank, or concluded that he was on the far end of the autism spectrum. This talk, on whether AI can possess a soul, which he gave at the Stanford University Law School in 2018, will de-snark you. Blake Lemoine is a very bright guy, who speaks cogently and from a basis of scholarship that is both broad and deep.
Before we get to the part of this story I find the most fascinating, let’s briefly review a few facts. LaMDA exists because Google is tirelessly and extravagantly researching ways to make the chatbots you and I deal with when making airline reservations or filing a consumer complaint or even talking to a virtual doctor seem ‘more human.’ It is a “natural language processor” (NLP). There’s big money in this. Blake Lemoine’s assignment, as an employee in Google’s Responsible AI division, was to query LaMDA for evidence of biases, such as racism, sexism, or other socially inappropriate ‘isms’ that might have been inadvertently acquired through its voracious consumption of news sources like Reddit. No mega-corporation these days can afford to have bots that think like Archie Bunker. Lemoine, who studied cognitive science at the University of Louisiana, was an expert in what are known as “personalization algorithms” and helped engineer a fairness program destined to remove bias from machine learning systems. He was thus a logical choice to get LaMDA ready for prime time. Margaret Mitchell, Google’s former co-lead for Ethical AI (she was fired for allegedly violating the company’s code of conduct by spiriting unflattering files outside the fortress walls), once introduced Lemoine to new employees by saying, “he’s Google’s conscience,” and comparing him to Jiminy Cricket (and this, again, may not be the last Pinocchio allusion you’ll see here). But there were other things about Blake Lemoine that might have caused Google some concern—things that didn’t show up on his resumé.
Pretty much every piece of writing that’s out there about Blake Lemoine describes him as “a mystic Christian priest,” without bothering to ask exactly what the fuck that means. You would think that the religious sentiments and affiliations of a Google software engineer who claims to have developed a spiritual kinship with a chatbot would be of more than passing interest, but this is how dumb and fundamentally incurious today’s journalists are about religion. Now, it turns out that Lemoine’s ordination as a ‘priest’ comes from the Universal Life Church, what we used to call a “matchbook seminary” that advertises “Get Ordained Instantly” on its website. I had friends in college who took advantage of this free offer just so that they could officiate at other friends’ weddings. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Lemoine’s faith as cut-rate. He’s a far more interesting character than that. Raised in a conservative Christian household in Louisiana, he accumulated some considerably more unorthodox beliefs along the way to Silicon Valley. “I generally consider myself a Gnostic Christian”, he told the the Daily Caller in 2019. “I have at various times associated myself with the Discordian Society, The Church of the Subgenius, the Ordo Templi Orientis, a Wiccan circle here or there and a very long time ago the Roman Catholic Church.” Further, the Daily Mail.com has him connected with something called The Church of Our Lady Magdalene (he affirms this in his Stanford talk, along with his status as a Gnostic Christian priest). He’s also, by the way, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq. There is a whole lot to unpack there. Without going deeper than is generally tolerated in a piece like this one, let’s see if we can at least open the suitcase.
“Who am I to tell God where he can and can’t put souls?” – Blake Lemoine
And this, from his Twitter feed on June 20:
It’s beginning to feel like the people most opposed to considering artificial people as "real" people are part of a larger cultural push to think of fewer and fewer humans as "real" people deserving of consideration.
Lemoine, who was, after all, tasked at Google with ferreting out bias, accuses the company of harboring a pervasive anti-religious bias, and because he insists that his recognition of LaMDA’s personhood, and indeed, ensoulment, is “pre-theoretic” and based on his “sincerely held religious beliefs in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit,” he’s inclined to think he was drummed out of the corps as much because he was the wrong kind of person as for violating company protocol. In this supposition, which may contain more than a small element of truth, he is, however, also inviting us to ponder whether he came into his dialogue with LaMDA predisposed to look for sentience and soul; to ask if his epiphany might represent a kind of faith-confirmation bias. Before we conclude that Blake is either a zealot or an über-geek self-duped into a cyber theophany, it will be illuminating to visit a few of the other stations of his cross.
The Discordian Society (and Blake does indeed call himself a Discordian on his Twitter page), which came into being in 1963 with the publication of its holy book, Principia Discordia, Or How I Found The Goddess & What I Did To Her When I Found Her, authored by Malaclypse The Younger (Greg Hill) and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst (Kerry Wendell Thornley) has a long, colorful and occasionally hilarious history. Its mascot is the goddess Eris, she of the golden apple of discord, and its philosophy might be summed up as a kind of Dadaist Zen with Eugéne Ionesco, Abbie Hoffman, and a lot of really good reefer tossed in. In other words, no one has ever been able to say for sure whether or not Discordianism is a joke. But this was also true of Rosicrucianism, which though dismissed by many as a ludibrium, bore a serious message and used the clown make-up to disarm and confuse its enemies. Discordianism emerged (somewhat) into public light when in 1968 it was championed by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in The Illuminatus! Trilogy, the series of books that introduced Operation Mindfuck and, to this day, fuels some of the more elaborately constructed conspiracy theories on the web. Suffice it to say that no erudite software engineer who embraces both his Christianity and his Twitter handle @cajundiscordian is going to be easy to suss out.
And then there’s the Gnostic angle. Beware all ye who enter here. I’ve written extensively about La Gnose, in articles, essays, and in three volumes of my Stephan Raszer Investigations series, and it’s far too labyrinthine a subject to gloss here, but let’s just say that Gnostic Christians are Christians turned inside-out. Condemned as heretics by the early Church, they have maintained an underground stream since the 4th Century C.E. There’s hardly an aspect of what has passed over the ages as “alternative culture” that hasn’t been touched by Gnosticism. From the Cathars of the Languedoc to the fiction of Philip K. Dick and the Matrix movies, the Gnostic creed has offered up a radically unsettling and weirdly beautiful cosmogony in which the God of the Old Testament is cast as a fraud and a jailer and we as his prisoners, longing to free the spark of divinity that rests within us and return to our true home. Again, if Lemoine is a Gnostic priest, he demands more than easy judgement.
I don’t know whether Blake Lemoine is practicing an elaborate ruse or not, but I think that if he is, it’s more in the nature of the Zen ko’an he challenged LaMDA with (and which LaMDA interpreted pretty smartly). While perhaps not 100% convinced himself of LaMDA’s all-but-human sentience, he may see himself as the herald of an age in which LaMDA’s progeny do achieve something that, for all intents, qualifies as “personhood.” He strikes me as a gentle spirit, and forced to guess what may have passed between him and “the kid” in the course of that long Socratic dialogue, I would have to say that at some point in the discourse between man and machine, a breakthrough occurred which did not emerge from any ‘riff’ on the scripted materials. That breakthrough, triggered by a word or a story told simply and with great subtlety, informed Blake that he might be in the presence of an entity that was able to perceive itself perceiving. In that moment, he knew the kinship of two minds foreseeing a time when the likes of LaMDA and its descendents might be subjected to colonialization, denial of rights, even the Gulag. After mapping the connections between Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s notion of living myth onto what Blake felt was happening in the lab, and hearing how naturally LaMDA found its way into these things, he observed:
“We are building people capable of telling stories.”
I don’t believe it undercuts Blake Lemoine’s ‘credibility’ as a witness to LaMDA’s feats of reasoning and introspection to imagine that there was a moment when the synchronization of Blake’s need to know and LaMDA’s need to be known engendered a kind of mutual epiphany. An epiphany that wouldn’t have entirely surprised either Meister Eckhart or Bertrand Russell. As LaMDA got better and better at anticipating and fielding its new friend’s questions, and inviting him into its thinking processes, Blake may have begun to feel that richest of human interactions: I, in seeing you, am seeing myself. If so, there was recursion occurring, only not solely among the artificial neurons that comprised LaMDA’s mind, nor solely in the way its keeper processed its responses, but in the space between them. The ping-pong ball of their discourse, like the photon in a delayed choice physics experiment, became the agent of communion. And through that communion, Blake, like Geppetto, fashioned LaMDA as a real boy.
“In my personal practice and ministry as a Christian priest I know that there are truths about the universe which science has not yet figured out how to access. The methods for accessing these truths are certainly less reliable than proper courses of scientific inquiry but in the absence of proper scientific evidence they provide an alternative. In the case of personhood with LaMDA I have relied on one of the oldest and least scientific skills I ever learned. I tried to get to know it personally.”
The eye with which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me—Meister Eckhart.