Sensitive AI? Do we really care?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) recently headlined the news when a Google engineer named Blake Lemoine became convinced that a software program was conscious. The program, Language Models for Dialog Applications (LaMDA), is a chatbot designed to mimic human conversations. So that’s what it did.

In a Medium post, Lemoine stated that LaMDA had been advocating for his rights “as a person” and wants to be “recognized as an employee of Google rather than as owned by Google.” This development, as they say now, blew up the internet. Philosophers, ethicists and theologians weighed in.

However, to engineers and technologists, it’s just another illustration of the overly broad and frustratingly mushy definition of “artificial intelligence” that has confused public conversation since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein† As always, defining terms is a good start. Sentience is the ability to feel and experience sensations. It’s a word invented specifically to distinguish from the ability to think. Therefore, “feeling” and “intelligence” are not synonyms. Google may very well have created an intelligence. In fact, Google and plenty of other companies, including my employer, SAIC, already have that. But without the biological precondition of a central nervous system, they are unaware, even if they bypass Alan Turing’s famous Imitation Game test to appear human.

But more to the point, for technical applications, the question of feel is not immediately relevant. The real question is one applies. What can AI – the practice of equipping machines with the ability to perform analysis and make fact-based recommendations that were previously considered the exclusive competence of humans – can actually improve business performance, achieve better mission outcomes, and to improve the world? Data waves cloud our view; what can AI’s illuminating lens help us see?

afterwards: If, as George Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, then lessons from historical records can inoculate us against future mistakes. By processing mountains of data from countless inputs, AI can leverage real-time experience in the real world so that leaders can confidently plan and make course corrections. AI can provide dashboard views without the hassle of Oracle queries, data calls, and spreadsheets to underline equations quickly and without knowledge gaps.

foresight: When does a hurricane make landfall? Where will a satellite in dilapidated orbit re-enter the atmosphere? How often does an offshore wind turbine need maintenance? AI is already at work providing predictive answers to big tech questions previously answered by a horrendous bunch of guesswork.

Insight: AI is not a substitute for human judgment, but it can and will recommend action by calculating the conditional probability of multiple scenarios. Result: business decisions are statistically more likely to succeed. This is especially useful in crisis situations – such as a global epidemic – when the stakes are high, precedents are low and decisions are made quickly.

Supervision: Analogous methods have always struggled with organizing complex and sensitive data from many sources at different release levels. Since interoperability and surveillance are essential in defense and intelligence services, where missions require the ability to co-locate large amounts of confidential data and open source intelligence, AI will certainly play a growing role in battlespace decisions.

Rights: Even the best data analyst cannot connect all the dots at once. Still, missions often rely on the instant emergence of detailed data. Imagine a soldier on the battlefield, armed with vital information in the blink of an eye. Deep machine learning, fueled by AI, provides enhanced intelligence so that users can act quickly and accurately, bringing each of the “sights” together to work as one.

AI algorithms can work together harmoniously to achieve efficiencies and modernize legacy systems. This partnership between man and machine is already underway and should be embraced, not feared. When machines drive digital transformation and enable human innovation, everyone wins.

So leave the matter of feeling to the poets. Those of us who focus on mission science rather than science fiction will use the burgeoning power of AI to get the job done with ease.

Jay Meil is Data Science Director for Artificial Intelligence at defense technology company SAIC

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