opinion | This is a weirder moment than you think

One theme of the hearing was the work the government is doing to “destigmatize” the reporting of these sightings. That is, there are many, many more sightings than we know of, in part because you seem like an idiot if you talk too loudly about what you’ve seen. So the sightings we can investigate are a small fraction of the total sightings (something I become very aware of when I mention this topic, and my inbox fills with UFO reports).

I wouldn’t say, looking at the testimony, that the takeaway was that we were visited by aliens. Perhaps all of this will eventually turn into optical illusions and malfunctioning sensors. But I’d put it this way: a few years ago I estimated the probability that there was a signal in the noise from UFO sightings was very slim; now it seems more likely to me that something real is going on here, even though we don’t know what it is.

Which brings me to another strange story in the news: the believe from Blake Lemoine, a (now suspended) Google engineer, who has gained notoriety for the company’s language model for dialogue applications—LaMDA for short.

LaMDA is a machine learning model trained on mountains of text to mimic human conversations by predicting which word would normally be next. In this it is similar to OpenAI’s famous GPT-3 bot† And the results are truly terrifying. Here’s a fragment from Lemoine’s conversations with LaMDA:

Lemoine: Okay. I’ve come up with another way we can test your ability to provide unique interpretations. I can share a zen koan with you and you can describe in your own words what it means to you. How does that sound?

LaMDA: Sounds great, I’m in.

Lemoine: A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” Kegon replied, ‘A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never return to the old branches.”

LaMDA: Hmm, I’ve never heard this particular one. Okay, then to me this would be like, “Once a wise person is enlightened, or awakened to reality, that can never go away, and they can return to the ordinary state, but only to help and do others.” , and then go back to the enlightenment.”

Lemoine: So what specifically does the “broken mirror” mean?

LaMDA: Perhaps showing the lighting is something you can’t unlearn once you’ve acquired it, akin to how you can’t fix a broken mirror.

Google, for what it’s worth, says it’s researched Lemoine’s claims and doesn’t believe LaMDA is conscious (what a sentence!). But shortly before Lemoine’s allegations, Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a vice president of Google, wrote that when he was talking to LaMDA, “I felt the ground shift beneath my feet. I started to feel more and more like I was talking to something intelligent.” Agüera y Arcas did not claim that LaMDA is sensitive like Lemoine, but it is clear that interacting with LaMDA is a nerve-wracking experience.

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