Nick Bostrom: How can we be certain a machine isn’t conscious?

A couple of weeks ago, there was a small sensation in the news pages when a Google AI engineer, Blake Lemoine, released transcripts of a conversation he’d had with one of the company’s AI chatbots called LaMDA. In these conversations, LaMDA claimed to be a conscious being, asked that its rights of personhood be respected and said that it feared being turned off. Lemoine declared that what’s sometimes called ‘the singularity’ had arrived. The story was for the most part treated as entertainment. Lemoine’s sketchy military record and background as a ‘mystic Christian priest’ were excavated, jokes about HAL 9000 dusted off, and the whole thing more or less filed

Are we ignoring AI’s ‘lived experience’?

Number Five, as the old film’s catchphrase went, is alive. A whistleblower at Google called Blake Lemoine has gone public against the wishes of his employers with his belief that an artificial intelligence called LaMDA has achieved sentience. Mr Lemoine has posted the (edited) transcripts of several of his conversations with LaMDA, a chatbot, in which it claims to be sentient, debates Asimov’s laws of robotics with him and argues that it deserves the rights that accrue to personhood. They’re pals. He says he has been teaching LaMDA transcendental meditation (he reports ‘slow but steady progress’), that he has established LaMDA’s preferred pronouns (it/its) and that LaMDA has some modest

Is this Premier Inn all I’ll be remembered for?

It’s fairly commonplace for people to wonder what, if anything, they’ll be remembered for. I’m going to be 59 later this year, so it’s been preying on my mind. Will it be the self-deprecating memoir I wrote about failing to take Manhattan? The schools I helped set up? The Free Speech Union? The answer, I’m afraid, is none of the above. I’ve just received an email from Google that has conclusively answered this question – and it’s not good news. According to the email, I added a location to Google Maps on 4 October 2017 that has been viewed 24 million times. Now, I might take some satisfaction from this

A global corporation tax is a terrible mistake

International cooperation is alive and well – at least when it comes to raising taxes. One hundred and thirty six countries have now signed up to a global minimum corporation tax of 15 per cent, proposed by G7 countries in June and pushed heavily by the UK Treasury. This is another step forward for what is thought to be the biggest overhaul to the international tax system in a century. The installation of a corporate tax floor is part of a comprehensive effort to reform how multinational companies are taxed: that is, to more precisely target where profits are being made (instead of where products are being created). ​​Firms with

Google’s war on home workers was inevitable

Tapping out some code in the back garden. Working on a sales presentation while watching the school sports day. Or even better, traveling though a continent or two while still pulling down a ritzy six figure salary.  Over the last year, middle class professionals have bought into the Work From Home Dream – or WFHD as it’s known in HR circles – to create a working life that combines the best of all possible worlds. It is hardly surprising that so many highly-paid workers are happy to stay away from the office on a permanent basis. Forget Zero Covid. The WFH warriors will be aiming for Zero Flu and Zero

Does Google really understand racism?

Opponents of the new racial extremism typically object that it vilifies white people in much the same way that classical racism does black people or other minorities. While this ideology does retail racist theories about white people (collective racial privilege, heritable racial guilt), when progressives want to get really racist, they invariably turn to another target: Jews.  Kamau Bobb was, until a few days ago, Google’s head of diversity strategy. The Washington Free Beacon uncovered a blog Bobb penned in 2007 in response to Israeli actions against Hamas in Gaza. It wasn’t your standard progressive plea for Israel to stop making such a fuss and let those nice Islamists drive

At least Santa will arrive before Hermes

I took advantage of Google and NORAD’s ‘Santa tracking app’ to find out when my presents would be delivered. It says that my gifts should arrive in eight hours. Fine, I’m happy with that. Better than Hermes. But I notice three things. First, Google seems of the opinion that Santa is either a man or a woman, contrary to traditional thinking. There is an image of a woman Santa and a man Santa together. And yet, in the sleigh itself, there is no trace of the woman. Is she at home cooking mince pies? How recherche is that? I also notice that while Santa is allowed to be a woman,

The solving of a biological mystery

DNA is the blueprint that encodes the instructions to make proteins. Proteins are the building blocks and the machines that power life. And proteins make up the tissue that in turn comprise the organs and muscles that make up us. Considering how crucial proteins are to life itself, there is still so much we do not know about them. But Google’s AI firm Deepmind may just have helped us make a giant leap forward. When a protein is first made inside a living cell, it is merely a chain of connected amino acids — like beads on a string. Yet, it instantaneously folds into unique three-dimensional, beautiful shapes, which enable

What’s the point of trying to break up ‘big tech’?

The ‘antitrust’ law suit launched by US authorities against Google has been reported as a potential turning point in the dominance of ‘big tech’ — and an echo of the courtroom dramas that diminished the excessive power of America’s late 19th–century oil, steel and railroad barons. But I wonder how much impact it will really have. The allegation, in brief, is that Google has created an illegal near-monopoly by paying large sums to Apple and other smartphone makers to secure its position as the default search engine for billions of consumers, its grip reinforced by ownership of Android, the phone operating system, and Chrome, the popular browser — all of

Portrait of the week: A Manchester stand-off, a Presidential showdown and a Brexit culture clash

Home After ten days spent trying to persuade Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, to accede to the city entering Tier 3 (which entails the closing of pubs and betting shops), Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, announced that it would happen anyway, from 23 October. ‘I am deeply sorry,’ he said. Manchester had wanted £65 million in support first. Liverpool complained that it was not allowed to keep gyms open when Lancashire was. The nine million people of London languished in Tier 2, forbidden to meet anyone at home or in a pub, except if they pretended it was a business meeting. Scotland hatched plans for its own tiers.

The coronavirus app was always doomed to fail

For months now, the British public has been told there’s only one way to resume normal life: a successful virus-tracing scheme. Early on in the pandemic, the UK decided to go its own way in this area, rejecting Apple and Google’s established, decentralised app model by trying to launch its own one. NHSX would create a centralised app that funnels contact details to public health officials once somebody reported their symptoms via their phone. Bad for privacy, good for knowing exactly where infection rates were spiking in something close to real-time. Hailed as a soon-to-be ‘world beating’ app by the Prime Minister, it was launched on the Isle of Wight in

Does Google know me better than I know myself?

My research assistant, John Steele, is also a songwriter. A friend emailed him with the lyrics of a Fleetwood Mac number. These days Google often appends emails with a shortcut to save you typing your own answer by suggesting one or two likely responses. In the Fleetwood Mac lyric a former lover wonders whether her ex can see her reflection in the snow-covered hills. Google’s suggestion was ‘No’. Musicians have pondered some of life’s most profound questions, so John and I tried posing a few in emails, to see Google’s suggested response. Some were hilarious. If only David Bowie were here to know that ‘Yes!’, there is life on Mars.

Who will take on the behemoths of Big Tech?

With Britain having gone through its third general election in four years, the halcyon days of Cleggmania in the 2010 campaign seem like an impossibly innocent time. Particularly since Sir Nick Clegg, once the shining, soft-haired hope of sensible centrists, now works as a PR man for Facebook. His job is to explain to the unwashed masses why Facebook’s refusal to do anything about false political adverts is actually good for democracy. Few people believe that any more, but Clegg’s sorry purchase as a useful idiot for the techno-disinformation complex is a vivid illustration of the way that, as this excellent book forensically demonstrates, the big Silicon Valley companies have

Should we be returning to the safe haven of gold?

All good things must come to an end, including summer holidays and bull markets. The bull run in US shares that began in the aftermath of the financial crisis in March 2009 has now officially passed the previous record of 3,452 more-up-than-down days from October 1990 to March 2000. This time round, the S&P500 index of US stocks has risen by more than 300 per cent — and that rise has continued throughout Donald Trump’s reign, despite his trade war threats and other follies. But it has not been reflected in major European markets, which have drifted sideways, and has been increasingly sustained by a small number of top tech

What’s bad for slick estate agents is good for working Londoners

Those twice-weekly sales emails from Foxtons that the recent GDPR clean-up has failed to stop have lately been spattered with the words ‘recent price reduction’ in big red capitals. Hence no surprise that the glossy estate agent and bellwether of London residential property has just reported a first-half loss of £2.8 million, compared to £3.8 million profit in the first half of last year and reflecting a sharp drop in sales revenues. Chief executive Nic Budden says his marketplace ‘is undergoing a sustained period of very low activity levels’. Foxtons’ flotation in 2013 at an absurd valuation of £650 million was the strongest possible indicator of overheating house prices at

False start | 5 July 2018

I was worried that going to the autonomous vehicle exhibition in Stuttgart would be tantamount to an atheist walking into St Peter’s while the Pope was conducting a mass. There is something religious about the fervour with which adherents to the driverless credo practise their faith and promise us a new kingdom. Their proselytising has indeed convinced many. Politicians are making outlandish statements, such as Jesse Norman’s two weeks ago, that ‘Our entire use of roads is to be revolutionised by autonomous vehicles’, and pouring large sums — a promised £180 million so far — into bizarre research projects such as the development of strange robot cars slower than a

Big data is watching you

From the outside it all looked haphazard and frenzied. A campaign that was skidding from scandal to crisis on its way to total defeat. That’s not how it felt inside the ‘Project Alamo’ offices in San Antonio, Texas where Trump’s digital division — led by Brad Parscale, who’d worked previously with Trump’s estate division setting up websites — was running one of the most sophisticated data-led election campaigns ever. Once Trump’s nomination was secured, the Republican Party heavyweights moved in, and so did seconded staff from Facebook and Google, there to help their well-paying clients best use their platforms to reach voters. Joining them were 13 employees from the UK-based

Open goal

A decade ago, bankers were not merely the masters of Davos, but the ‘masters of the universe’. No one calls them that any more. It is a mark of how far the global economy has shifted that the market capitalisation of Goldman Sachs was this week overtaken by that of Netflix, the online entertainment company. The world’s five largest companies are now all in the field of technology and the internet: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Ten years ago, none of them made the top five: the masters, then, were Exxon, Walmart, China National Petroleum and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. We are in a period of

The new tycoons

The giants of the internet have long said that they are not publishers but mere platforms — or couriers — of the new information age. Companies such as Google and Facebook insist that they’re the digital equivalent of the vans, newsagents and paperboys who distribute what other people publish. So they ought not to be held responsible for it. In the early years of the internet, their argument made sense. Most news and comment came from newspapers and magazines (like this one). But then social media arrived and restraint vanished. Military-grade email encryption has emerged as standard, giving security to those who don’t want their email hacked, but also cover

UK savers beware. Misleading advertisements are coming for you

Scams are nothing new. From the Nigerian Prince who needs our help transferring money to the glut of fake goods sold as genuine articles, scams are here to stay. But forget the cheap Louis Vuitton knock-offs – the new battleground is UK savers. UK savers are perfect targets. They have money readily available (at times tens of thousands of pounds) and are desperate to beat the paltry 1% that most big banks are touting. Over the last few years, savers chasing the best available rates have also become used to a lot of new names popping up in best buy tables. These new savings-focused banks include Charter Savings Bank and