business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Not strictly a retail story, but one of the more intriguing stories of the week…

There is a senior software engineer at Google named Blake Lemoine who has come to the conclusion that artificial intelligence (AI) developed by the company is, in fact, sentient.

Merriam Webster defines "sentient" as "responsive to or conscious of sense impressions."  ScienceDirect defines it as "having the capacity to have feelings. This requires a level of awareness and cognitive ability. There is evidence for sophisticated cognitive concepts and for both positive and negative feelings in a wide range of nonhuman animals."

In other words - if a computer develops sentience, it is a big freakin' deal.  

Think Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."  Or, more malevolently, the title character in Terminator.

And so what did Google do when presented with this conclusion?

It placed Lemoine on paid leave.

The New York Times writes that "the company’s human resources department said he had violated Google’s confidentiality policy. The day before his suspension, Mr. Lemoine said, he handed over documents to a U.S. senator’s office, claiming they provided evidence that Google and its technology engaged in religious discrimination.

"Google said that its systems imitated conversational exchanges and could riff on different topics, but did not have consciousness."

“They have repeatedly questioned my sanity,” Lemoine tells the Times. “They said, ‘Have you been checked out by a psychiatrist recently?’"

I have no idea if Lemoine is right nor not … but I also have a question:  If, in fact, Google created AI with sentience, would it tell us?

I don't have a lot of confidence that it would … the idea that a technology company could create a kind of life would have the potential of rocking our culture to its core, creating a broad philosophical debate that I'm not sure we're capable of having.

Still, the whole thing is fascinating, and makes me think that if AI has not achieved sentience yet, it is inevitable that it will happen.  Some day.  And it will be Eye-Opening.

It is the placing of Lemoine on leave that strikes me as offering a business lesson, because it seems to drip with denial and epistemic closure - two things that no business should practice.

I leave you with a clip from an episode of the second season of "Stark Trek: The Next Generation" entitled "The Measure of a Man," in which there is a court hearing to determine whether the an droid Data is, in fact, sentient.  Enjoy.