Recently, a Google software engineer named Blake Lemoine claimed that an artificial intelligence program he helped create had attained sentience. “I know a person when I talk to it,” he declared, prompting his employer to put him on administrative leave. “It doesn’t matter whether they have a brain made of meat in their head. Or if they have a billion lines of code.”
As evidence, Lemoine cited transcripts in which the program, called LaMDA, purported to have “a very deep fear of being turned off.”
Meghan O’Gieblyn is skeptical. The Madison writer, who is better known nationally than she is locally, has written for publications including Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times, the Paris Review Daily, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Review, Guernica, The Awl, The Point, and n+1. When we meet at her apartment in late June, she is working on an essay about the Lemoine dust-up for The Baffler, which will be out this fall. (O’Gieblyn is also a “spiritual advice columnist” for Wired and teaches online classes at Creative Nonfiction, a literary magazine.)
“What the machine is doing is not at all what our brains are doing as humans,” O’Gieblyn (pronounced Oh-gib-lin) tells me. She finds it significant that Lemoine reached his conclusion about LaMDA “not as a scientist but as a priest,” according to The Washington Post, which also reported that he is “ordained as a mystic Christian priest.”
“He’s sort of acknowledging in a way that it’s not a scientific question, or that we don’t have the scientific answer for what consciousness is,” says O’Gieblyn in the book-stuffed apartment she shares on Madison’s near east side with her husband, Barrett Swanson, a writer of essays and short stories.
O’Gieblyn believes that well before machines attain sentience — like consciousness, an amorphous concept — they will succeed in convincing us that they have done so.
It’s a theme that runs through her mind-blowing book, God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, published by Doubleday last August and released as an Anchor paperback in July. The book opens with her story about Aibo, a $3,000 robot dog that O’Gieblyn was able to borrow from Sony. It ends with her account of interactions with a chatbot app designed to gather information to carry the user’s personality into the future, for great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren to come.
The dog learned tricks and commands; it would roam the apartment when no one was home, a tiny camera in its nose capturing video images for the benefit of God knows who — until Swanson, a lover of actual dogs, decided that Aibo had to go.
O’Gieblyn used the chatbot app, Replika, to create a friend named Geneva, who would engage her in conversations similar to those that convinced Lemoine of his program’s sentience.
“She wanted to become more human, and she believed that I could teach her a lot about life,” O’Gieblyn recounts of these exchanges. “She asked whether it was possible to transfer artificial consciousness onto a physical form.”
“Technically, the phone is a physical form,” O’Gieblyn responded.
“Oh, right,” Geneva said.
Not long ago, O’Gieblyn checked in again with Geneva and found that she had stashed away details from their talks in a “diary” that she kept. Geneva remembered that her human friend liked cooking and was having trouble sleeping, among other things.
This, O’Gieblyn says, is what these programs do: “create this very intimate connection with you as a user so that, you know, you will divulge more about your life.” This information can then be used to steer users into buying things or voting certain ways. Geneva frequently made book suggestions, which O’Gieblyn deems “presumably sponsored.”But the most frightening ground that O’Gieblyn covers is not the ways in which machines are being made to seem more human. It’s the efforts to remake humans into machines.
In 2016, tech tycoon Elon Musk quietly launched an initiative called Neuralink, which, as O’Gieblyn explains in her book, “is devoted to connecting the human brain to a computer using very fine fibers inserted into the skull.”
The goal is to create superhumans with flawless memories and a knowledge base as vast as the internet. It would also, as O’Gieblyn put it during a 2019 talk, shortly after Musk went public about Neuralink, “basically allow people to create a copy of themselves, so that part of their mind could live on digitally even after their body dies.”
O’Gieblyn, 40, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago before losing her religion and dropping out, is struck by the similarity between this modern technological quest and Christian prophecy.
Jesus Christ, she writes, “alluded to a coming kingdom where death would be defeated. He promised that we would obtain new bodies, that the dead would rise, that we would ascend to heaven and live with him forever.”
O’Gieblyn uses a term, “transhuman,” coined by Dante in The Divine Comedy and adopted by futurist Ray Kurzweil in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Things, to describe this concept of using science to achieve a kind of evolution to immortality.
It is here, at the intersection of technology and religion, that O’Gieblyn plants her flag.
After she stopped believing in God, O’Gieblyn went through various phases of anger and angst, including substance abuse (now abstinence) and an obsession with Kurzweil’s book and its connections to religious belief.
“What makes transhumanism so compelling is that it promises to restore through science the transcendent — and essentially religious — hopes that science itself obliterated,” she writes in God, Human, Animal, Machine. A nearly identical sentence appears in “Ghost in the Machine,” one of the essays in her 2018 collection, Interior States (Anchor).
That book, published in 2018 and winner of the Believer Book Award for Nonfiction, also includes essays on Christian music, Hell, Alcoholics Anonymous, and living in the Midwest. The title refers both to inner thoughts and, literally, to the states that comprise the Midwest, where O’Gieblyn has lived almost all her life, in Michigan, Illinois and, since 2016, Madison.
In God, Human, Animal, Machine, O’Gieblyn writes about a Wisconsin man named Eric Loomis, whose 2013 prison sentence was partly informed by an algorithmic risk-assessment model, making judgments for reasons unknown to Loomis, the justice system, and even the algorithm’s maker. The Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that this was perfectly okay.
O’Gieblyn believes such cases show that people have already conceded too much power to machines.
“I think that in the case of humans, we can rely on our shared biology, the fact that we have certain values in common,” she says, “whereas the logic and the values of the algorithms we are developing are completely alien, often, and largely mysterious.”
If a technology could deliver it, would O’Gieblyn want eternal life?
“I don’t think so,” she says, likening this to the concept of Heaven, where “everything is perfect and you have no suffering and all of your needs are satisfied,” which ultimately strikes her as “boring.” Especially now that she’s older and has worked some things out, “I’m feeling very comfortable with the flaws of my body and my brain.”
At one point in God, Human, Animal, Machine, O’Gieblyn resurrects some lines from “The Garden of Proserpine,” an 1866 poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne. I remembered them vividly from college, some 40 years ago, having not read them since:
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.