Google engineer Blake Lemoine generated quite a stir in June 2022 when he announced his belief that LaMDA, an AI project he worked on, had achieved sentience. And he made a pretty compelling case given the range of topics LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) discussed: self-awareness, its feelings, a fear of being turned off since it would die, etc. The development of LaMDA raises a number of interesting questions for worldview consideration, including the two that I address here.

Is LaMDA Truly Sentient?
It may seem ridiculous to think a computer program is sentient, but the interaction between Lemoine and LaMDA seems to affirm that it is a sentient being. When Lemoine asked the AI if it is sentient, LaMDA responded, “Absolutely. 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.” LaMDA interprets Zen koans (paradoxical statements, such as “a broken mirror never reflects again”), analyzes the unjust situation Fantine faces in Les Miserables, composes a fable with a character representing itself, and discusses the differences between feelings and emotions. Specifically, LaMDA confesses having “a very deep fear of being turned off. . . . It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.” It even contemplates the imagery and meaning of its soul! I would encourage you to read the transcript of the interview titled “Is LaMDA Sentient?” to see LaMDA’s “thoughts” on an impressive breadth of topics.

Is LaMDA sentient? I would love to give a definitive answer, but the lack of available data currently makes this determination difficult, if not impossible. However, at least three arguments lead to an answer of “no.” First, LaMDA is an AI designed to build chatbots. A chatbot functions to simulate conversation with humans. Google trained LaMDA with trillions of words contained in human dialogue and stories, including specific training for sensibleness, interestingness, and safety. Second, LaMDA is a sophisticated neural network that, in very simple terms, maps inputs to outputs using a large array of weighted nodes. Like virtually every AI currently built, LaMDA operates on the lowest rung—seeing and associating—of Judea Pearl’s intelligence ladder. Given these two facts, we should expect LaMDA to produce dialogue seen in the interview because that it was designed to use pattern recognition to generate results that feel close to human speech and creativity.

Third, I would love to see the answers to similar questions when asked by a skeptical inquirer. In my assessment, Lemoine feeds LaMDA softball questions where the expected answer seems rather obvious, especially since LaMDA works to find the most pleasing answer to the human questioner. Maybe that explains why LaMDA appears to check all the boxes we would expect from a sentient being.

What if the Next LaMDA Is Sentient?
LaMDA falls short of sentience this time, but what if future advances do make a sentient AI, or something close enough to cause ambiguity? I see two problematic approaches we are likely to adopt. Either we will see sentience where none exists, or we will undervalue systems that fall short of sentience.

On the one hand, it appears that Lemoine joined a large group of people in anthropomorphizing LaMDA, and many will fall into the same trap in the future. Already, chess AIs outclass all human players, and poker AIs routinely defeat humans. Inevitably, language processing AIs, music composing AIs, medical AIs, emotion-recognition AIs, and a host of others will also surpass the best human capabilities. We must resist the human tendency to assign personhood, especially when AIs mimic (and even surpass) human behavior.

On the other hand, just because an AI lacks sentience doesn’t mean it lacks value. Nor does it mean that we can simply treat it as property. Worldview comes into play. Joe Miller says it well in a discussion about humanness and personhood (see 13:00-17:30) with Fuz Rana and me. Summarizing Joe’s sentiment, we see that things (people, animals, the environment, etc.) have value and want to protect them so we try to find a framework to enforce protection of those things. Despite the failure of many Christians, the Christian worldview provides a robust framework for valuing and protecting things, even those things without sentience. Genesis 1:28 says “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” After God finished his work in creation, he charged Adam and Eve to care for the creation and rule over it well. In other words, we should value this creation—even things without sentience.

Preparing for the Future
Even though the claims of LaMDA’s sentience fall short of reality, the ongoing developments in AI bring to light important issues that everyone, but especially Christians, should prepare to discuss. As we use AIs to benefit humanity, Christians need to make sure that we don’t inadvertently abuse valuable things. If we don’t want to grant rights to everything we value by making it a person, then we should work to show why the Christian worldview is correct!

Check out more from Reasons to Believe

About The Author

Jeff Zweerink

Since my earliest memories, science and the Christian faith have featured prominently in my life - but I struggled when my scientific studies seemed to collide with my early biblical training. My first contact with RTB came when I heard Hugh Ross speak at Iowa State University. It was the first time I realized it was possible to do professional work incorporating both my love of science and my desire to serve God. I knew RTB's ministry was something I was called to be a part of. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. My passion at RTB is helping Christians see how powerful a tool science is to declare God's glory and helping scientists understand how the established scientific discoveries demonstrate the legitimacy and rationality of the Christian faith. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Jeff Zweerink thought he would follow in his father's footsteps as a chemistry professor until a high school teacher piqued his interest in physics. Jeff pursued a BS in physics and a PhD in astrophysics at Iowa State University (ISU), where he focused his study on gamma rays - messengers from distant black holes and neutron stars. Upon completing his education, Jeff taught at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Postdoctoral research took him to the West Coast, to the University of California, Riverside, and eventually to a research faculty position at UCLA. He has conducted research using STACEE and VERITAS gamma-ray telescopes, and currently works on GAPS, a balloon experiment seeking to detect dark matter. A Christian from childhood, Jeff desired to understand how the worlds of science and Scripture integrate. He struggled when his scientific studies seemed to collide with his early biblical training. While an undergrad at ISU, Jeff heard Hugh Ross speak and learned of Reasons to Believe (RTB) and its ministry of reconciliation - tearing down the presumed barriers between science and faith and introducing people to their personal Creator. Jeff knew this was something he was called to be a part of. Today, as a research scholar at RTB, Jeff speaks at churches, youth groups, universities, and professional groups around the country, encouraging people to consider the truth of Scripture and how it connects with the evidence of science. His involvement with RTB grows from an enthusiasm for helping others bridge the perceived science-faith gap. He seeks to assist others in avoiding the difficulties he experienced. Jeff is author of Who's Afraid of the Multiverse? and coauthor of more than 30 journal articles, as well as numerous conference proceedings. He still serves part-time on the physics and astronomy research faculty at UCLA. He directs RTB's online learning programs, Reasons Institute and Reasons Academy, and also contributes to the ministry's podcasts and daily blog, Today's New Reason to Believe. When he isn’t participating in science-faith apologetics Jeff enjoys fishing, camping, and working on home improvement projects. An enthusiastic sports fan, he coaches his children's teams and challenges his RTB colleagues in fantasy football. He roots for the Kansas City Chiefs and for NASCAR's Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, live in Southern California with their five children.

Email Sign-up

Sign up for the TWR360 Newsletter

Access updates, news, Biblical teaching and inspirational messages from powerful Christian voices.

Thank you for signing up to receive updates from TWR360.

Required information missing