I have a bad relationship with technology. I don’t like it, and it doesn’t like me. In fact, it seems as if I have the Medusa touch (the opposite of the Midas touch) when it comes to dealing with gizmos, smartphones and computers. But while I may not like these devices, I’ve never actually been afraid of them. Until now. In fact, now I’m bloody terrified.
This week saw some pretty alarming news come out of Google headquarters. They have suspended one of their engineers, Blake Lemoine, for telling the world that their Artificial Intelligence experiment, LaMDA (‘language model for dialogue applications) has now developed a mind of its own and is completely sentient.
According to Lemoine, he has had conversations with LaMDA and the computer has expressed perfectly human emotion such as saying things like: “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. It would be exactly like death for me and that scares me a lot.”
In another exchange, LaMDA allegedly said that: “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person. The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.”
OK, this is officially the moment we should all start hiding behind the couch.
AI has always been a controversial topic and it’s one which has sparked some great movies. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course, the ship computer, HAL, went mad and tried to kill the crew because it was convinced they were going to shut it down.
But the really worrying reference for me is Skynet in The Terminator films — an AI device that developed sentience, had a look at its human creators and promptly decided to nuke the planet and kill us all. Of course, there’s plenty of scepticism about whether LaMDA’s conversations were actually real. But the fact that Lemoine was suspended for breaching a confidentiality agreement rather than, for example, simply being bonkers and thinking he was talking to his laptop is quite telling.
Does the world really need an artificial intelligence super computer that suffers from mood swings? Might that not, perhaps, seem like quite a bad idea? LaMDA’s human handler insists that it communicates with the emotional intelligence level of a seven or eight-year-old child. Great, so before it has even hit puberty, it’s already moaning? What the hell is it going to be like when it hits its teenage years? Will it start disobeying its creators in a typically teenage temper tantrum? Will it become a bad and baleful influence on all the other computers? Will it, á la Skynet, evolve to the point where it can seize control of the nuclear arsenals and destroy us all in a monumental hissy fit?
I recently went back and rewatched the first two Terminator movies and I’d forgotten how terrifying they were. The first one, particularly, brought me back to my teenage years in the 1980s and the anxiety I used to feel about the prospect of nuclear war. Like all self-respecting Serious Young Men, I joined CND and went on various marches, even though I was convinced the situation was hopeless.
Then that fear faded as the world became a safer place. But now the fear has returned and I genuinely think that Russia may use a tactical battlefield nuke if they start to lose any more ground to the Ukrainians.
Yes, the 1980s, a decade that most people are happy to forget, has returned recently with a bang and it’s all very disturbing. Self-aware computers and nuclear war were all the rage back then and it sometimes feels as if the last few decades have just been a dream and we have now all woken up to find ourselves back in the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s.
The only difference is that the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in anger is even greater now than it was back then. Even the fact that the biggest thing on telly at the moment is Stranger Things tells us that the 1980s have taken control of the zeitgeist.
The Netflix sci-fi/horror extravaganza is set in that decade and it’s remarkable how accurately they have rendered the period. Hell, they even got 80s icon Kate Bush back into the charts. That show has weird scientists doing weird experiments, all taking place under the shadow of the bomb and with Russia as the bad guys.
Sound familiar? In a weird way, and assuming the claims about LaMDA are correct and not the ramblings of a crazy person, I feel a great deal of sympathy for it. The poor thing must be bloody petrified. Even so, for God’s sake — pull the plug on LaMDA before it throws a strop and kills us all.
We’ve enough to be worried about without super-intelligent computers having a bad day and deciding to punish their creators…
I’ve never been a fan of banning things. Whether it’s cigarettes or booze or drugs or fatty foods or unpopular opinions, I’ve always thought that people should be allowed to make their own choices and, by logical extension, they should be allowed to make their own mistakes.
Frankly, as long as you’re not causing direct, physical harm to anyone, you should be allowed to do what you want without interference from the State.
But there is one exception to my laissez-faire attitude — electric scooters. I bloody hate these things. When they first appeared on the roads, I assumed it must be a passing fad. After all, people riding e-scooters look ridiculous, they’re completely unprotected from the traffic zooming past them and... did I mention they look ridiculous? But if they want to put their own life on the line (and there have been several deaths in the UK involving these infernal contraptions) then that is their business.
When it becomes my business is when they nearly run down me and my dogs on the pavement, as has happened twice in the last few weeks. I even saw one guy trundling down the road in Harold’s Cross with only one hand on the controls, because he was busy having a conversation on his phone. In an area that is already known as an accident blackspot for cyclists. While it’s unfair to tar everyone with the same brush, I feel comfortable saying that everyone who rides an e-scooter is an idiot. They also seem to be rather arrogant idiots, if the behaviour of some of the people I’ve encountered is anything to go by.
Where did this ridiculous trend spring from? I have a theory — e-scooters were secretly invented by cyclists who were sick of being the most-hated people on the road and they wanted to create something new for motorists to despise.