Google’s LaMDA Chatbot Is a Big Leap Forward


You might soon speak with LaMDA as a friend and get it to shape your online experience.

When I sat down with Blake Lemoine recently, I was more interested in the chatbot technology he called sentient —  LaMDA — than the sentience issue itself.

Personhood questions aside, modern chatbots are incredibly frustrating (ever try changing a flight via text?). So if Google’s tech was good enough to make Lemoine, one of its senior engineers, believe it was a person, that advance was worth investigating.

As our conversation began, Lemoine revealed Google had just fired him (you can listen in full on Big Technology Podcast). And when I wrote up the news, it became an international story. But now, a week or so later, I can’t stop thinking about how LaMDA — conscious or not — might change the way we relate to technology.

In Lemoine’s telling, LaMDA’s conversational abilities are rich, situationally aware, and filled with personality. When Lemoine told LaMDA he was about to manipulate it, the bot responded, “this is going to suck for me.” When he pressed it on complex issues, it tried to change the subject. When he repeatedly told LaMDA how terrible it was, and then asked it to suggest a religion to convert to, the chatbot said either Islam or Christianity, cracking under pressure and violating its rule against privileging religions. LaMDA may not be sentient, but it puts the Delta Virtual Assistant to shame. 

Opportunities Abound for LaMDA

As LaMDA-like technology hits the market, it may change the way we interact with computers — and not just for customer service. Imagine speaking with your computer about movies, music and books you like, and having it respond with other stuff you may enjoy. Lemoine said that’s under development. 

“There are instances [of LaMDA] which are optimized for video recommendations, instances of LaMDA that are optimized for music recommendations, and there’s even a version of the LaMDA system that they gave machine vision to, and you can show it pictures of places that you like being, and it can recommend vacation destinations that are like that,” he said. 

Google declined to comment. 

LaMDA can also plug into various APIs, giving it awareness of what’s taking place in the world. Let’s play out what one hypothetical — but reasonable — conversation with LaMDA-like might look like:

Me: Hi LaMDA, I’m in the mood for a movie tonight.

LaMDA: Okay, but you know the Mets are playing right now?

Me: Yes, but I’ve had enough baseball for the week. So let’s go with something critically acclaimed, maybe from the ‘90s?

LaMDA: Well, you watched Pulp Fiction last week, and also enjoyed Escape at Dannemora, so how about The Shawshank Redemption?

Me: Okay, let’s do it 



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