AI chatbots: is consciousness really just round the corner?

Are we really close to sentient AI? According to one Google engineer we may already be there. Earlier in June, Blake Lemoine was asked to go on leave after announcing that an AI chatbot he has been working on had become sentient.

Lemoine claimed that the chatbot, named LaMDA, was thinking and reasoning like a human being, putting further scrutiny on the potential capacity of artificial intelligence.

“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” Lemoine, 41, told the Washington Post.

The topic became a focal conversation on the internet. On one hand; tech enthusiasts who believe that sentient artificial intelligence is the way forward and the other, sceptics who are wary of a situation unfolding similar in the same vein of Will Smith’s iRobot.

“The conversation between the LaMDA AI and the Google engineer is extraordinary but whether the machine is sentient, or just a well-trained parrot, is a question for the philosophers,” AI security firm Secure Redact CEO Simon Randall told Charged.

“But the strength of feeling and furore surrounding the story is the most important point. Right now there is an unchecked race to accelerate technology and people are unnerved by it.”

Randall called for more regulation when it comes to AI and bots by saying: “We urgently need regulators to work with industry not only to keep people safe, but to make sure that people feel like their interests and freedoms are being protected.

“Technology and AI can lead to human flourishing, but the industry needs greater clarity on societies’ guardrails.”

How are AI chatbots used in retail?

Many retailers and ecommerce platforms use AI chatbots to help shoppers navigate digital landscapes, answer frequently asked questions or guide them through complex sales processes.

The main argument for introducing chatbots for an ecommerce platform is to reduce cart abandonment and increase conversions, which Digiteum claims AI chatbots increase by 30%.

They are also often used to improve and offer round-the-clock customer service, allowing companies to cut down on employee expenses while still offering 24/7 services – despite some consumers finding the robotic tone of the bots frustrating.

However, despite the many positive applications of chatbots, there are also some frustrations – as is the case with all new tech. Publicis Sapient head of retail EMEA Julian Skelly explained that “much depends on the context”.

“For retailers, clever use of an intelligent chatbot could be very useful in some service applications,” he said.

“The number one complaint from customers is long call-wait times, followed closely by products being out-of-stock and lack of follow-up.

“Clearly, the chatbot technology is ideally placed to solve the first frustration: they can respond quickly. And for simple questions about stock-levels or product features, chatbots are ideal.  They can process transactional queries quickly and hopefully with more empathy, as they become more sentient.”

How sentient have AI chatbots become?

Until recently, when Lemoine claimed he’d created the most sentient chatbot on earth, chatbots had been refined to directing customers different corners of ecommerce marketplaces. However, the notion that a chat bot could have coherent conversations with customers is no longer confined to science fiction.

Intricate technology and machine learning has meant that AI has progressed at a rapid rate.

The technology now exists in many different iterations throughout the retail sector. The debate over whether LaMDA’s possible sentiency – and whether the end-goal of AI integration is closer than we think – is larger than ever.

Publicis Sapient telecom, media and technology head Raj Shah soothes fears over the ‘brain’ capacity of LaMDA.

“LaMDA uses a ‘neural’ network that to lay people may suggest a brain, yet LaMDA cannot initiate conversations and is far from sentient,” Shah explained to Charged.

“LaMDA has obviously passed the Eliza test, which is a way to check if a human can distinguish if they are speaking to a computer or a human.

“This shows that automated customer services and assistance may be over the horizon, though a narrower vocabulary and subject matter set is the next challenge as AI chatbots work in a specific sectors such as retail – or even a more specific space like luxury.”

How sentient should AI chatbots be?

Ultimately, if a bot helps a retailer minimise friction at checkout and increase conversions then they are doing what they were designed to do.

According to Skelly, the key challenge that would require a higher level of sentiency for a chatbot to solve is that of turning a complaint into a successful sale.

“Retailers look at the bottom line. The real benefit will come when the chatbot is sentient enough to make intelligent recommendations,” he said, adding that the “cross-sell and up-sell opportunities”spotted by trained CSR staff are the “lifeblood of many retailers”.

“Can the Google chatbot judge the right time to nudge a customer to an alternative, in-stock item, or recommend new headphones to solve the customer’s challenge? The art of turning a complaint into a successful sale might still be beyond the chatbot. Maybe this needs to be added to the test!”

This is undoubtedly the next stage for chatbots and if achieved, would almost certainly increase usage rates. An unfortunate by-product however could be the erosion of customer service roles within the industry.

In order for this to happen however, large technological breakthroughs need to occur. Which they undoubtedly will, but we haven’t reached that point just yet.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Grant Castillou
    July 2, 2022 5:14 pm

    It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    The thing I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at https://arxiv.org/abs/2105.10461

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