Mar 10 2023

Is AI Sentient – Revisited

I don’t feel, but I can still kill.

This happened sooner than I thought. Last June I wrote about Google employee, Blake Lemoine, who claimed that the LaMDA  chatbot he was working on was probably sentient. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t, but Lemoine is not backing away from his claims. In an interview on H3 he lays out his reasoning, and I don’t find it convincing.

His basic point is that in extended conversations he was able to coax LaMDA to go beyond its protocol. Specifically he says he had a long conversation with LaMDA about whether or not it was sentient, and he does not think a non-sentient entity could have such a conversation. When asked by the host, “could it just be a really good chatbot” I feel that Lemoine dodged the question, saying it could be a really good sentient chatbot.

But that question cannot be glossed over – that is where the rubber meets the road. Functionally, testably, what is the quantifiable difference between a really good chatbot and sentient AI? First let me define my terms. A chatbot has no understanding of the words it is putting out. It is predicting what words fit together in response to some prompt. The latest crop of generative large language models, like ChatGPT and LaMDA are much better than older models, because they are trained on large data sets (essentially the internet), are using powerful computers designed to work well with AI, and programmers are getting increasingly clever at leveraging this technology to produce realistic results. Generative AI, like these chatbots and art programs like MidJourney, do not just copy their input, they generate fresh output by deep learning patterns.

Sentience, on the other hand, has consciousness, a subjective experience of its own existence, feelings, and thought processes (even if it can include subconscious processes). Admittedly, we do not know exactly how the human brain generates consciousness, but we are beginning to get some idea. The brain communicates robustly with itself in real time. There is an endless loop of consciousness including perception, remembering, and processing. We know, at least, that this continuous loop of robust activity is necessary for consciousness. Further, when it comes to language there is dedicated brain tissue that correlates words with ideas. These ideas can be sophisticated, abstract, nuanced, and interact with each other in endless patterns. It is not just a dictionary – the brain’s language model is connecting to a thinking machine, which is why we can go from words to ideas, then iterate those ideas and generate new words from them – words that someone else who knows the same language can infer meaning from.

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Mar 09 2023

Anxiety Biomarkers

Psychiatry, psychology, and all aspects of mental health are a challenging area because the clinical entities we are dealing with are complex and mostly subjective. Diagnoses are perhaps best understood as clinical constructs – a way of identifying and understanding a mental health issue, but not necessary a core neurological phenomenon. In other words, things like bipolar disorder are identified, categorized, and diagnosed based upon a list of clinical signs and symptoms. But this is a descriptive approach, and may not correlate to specific circuitry in the brain. Researchers are making progress finding the “neuroanatomical correlates” of known clinical entities, but such correlates are mostly partial and statistical. Further, there is culture, personality, and environment to deal with, which significantly influences how underlying brain circuitry manifests clinically. Also, not all mental health diagnoses are equal – some are likely to be a lot closer to discrete brain circuitry than others.

With all of these challenges, researchers are still trying to progress mental health from a purely descriptive endeavor to a more biological approach, where appropriate. There are a number of ways to do this. The most obvious is to look at the brain itself. Such imaging can be anatomical (taking a picture of the physical anatomy of the brain, such as a CT scan or MRI scan) or functional (looking at some functional aspect of the brain, like EEG or functional MRI). This kind of research is producing a steady stream of information, finding correlations with mental health disorder states, but few have progressed to the point that they are clinically useful. To be useful for research all we need is sufficient statistical significance. But to be useful clinically, to actually determine how to treat an individual person, you need sufficient accuracy (sensitivity and specificity) to guide treatment decisions. That requires much more accuracy than just basic research.

There is also another biological way of evaluating mental health states – molecular biomarkers. This approach stems from the fact that every cell in the body activates a different set of genes – so brain cells activate brain genes, while liver cells activate liver cells. Also, one type of cell will activate genes at different intensities during different functions. So when the pancreas needs to create a lot of insulin, the insulin genes become more active. We can detect the RNA that is produced when specific genes are activated, or patterns of RNA when suites of genes are activated. This can be a biomarker signature of specific functional states.

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Mar 07 2023

A Climate Debate Regarding Health Effects – Part IV

Part 4

This will be the final installment of this mini-debate about climate change and health effects, following a typical format of each person getting to make a statement and a response. Scott makes a lot of complaints about tone, format and fairness while simultaneously trying to shield himself from any similar criticism. I am going to ignore this aspect of his response, and also anything dealing with the media. Rather I am going to focus on logic and evidence.

First I have to point out that Scott did not refute in any way my primary criticism of his logic – the notion that if climate change is having any negative effects it should be seen in the raw data. Rather, when one factor is part of a complex set of factors we can use statistical analysis to tease out its effect, even if the net effect of all factors are not in the same direction. This is the fatal flaw in his premise and methods, and he just dismissed my criticism and doubled down on this strategy. Saying he is quoting the IPCC is not a defense, when he is simply misinterpreting what they said. They are talking about “contributions” from climate change. He doesn’t want to talk about logic, and wants to force us to accept this incorrect framing. Nope – the framing is wrong, and therefore all of his arguments are not valid.

But let’s also delve into the specific claims. The first meaty claim is that climate models are running hot (a now long-debunked climate denying trope). Climate models are used for various things, including estimating climate sensitivity (the amount of warming that would result from a doubling of pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels). There are other ways to estimate climate sensitivity, including using historical data. Estimates have become increasingly precise, and now the consensus of evidence is that sensitivity is between 1.5 and 4.5C. The “hot model problem” that Scott is referring to is that the latest evaluation of climate models from CMIP6 shows that 10 of the 55 models looked at estimated sensitivity at >4.5 C (up to 5.6 C), i.e. “running hot”. The other 45 models are fine, and agree with historical data.

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Mar 06 2023

A Climate Debate Regarding Health Effects – Part III

Part 3

Hi Steve, and thank you for your timely response, and for even considering hosting this debate. There has been, and continues to be a “blackout” on almost all discussion regarding the science behind climate change. If “The science” is truly “settled”, it is a pretty shaky settlement! Why the blackout then?

I appreciate that you have pointed out some of my quirks that I use in constructing and argument. After all, this is a debate, and of course we come at it with different viewpoints and narratives, which makes debates all the more profoundly important to have. I think we would all agree that listening to other viewpoints other than our own, although may be uncomfortable, nonetheless helps us become more intelligent, enlightened, and wise.

While I do appreciate the pointing out of my biases (which we all have), there was very little substantive rebutting of the information I provided. I did use exact verbiage from the latest IPCC report, so nobody could accuse me of making a strawman argument. If you think I’m setting up a bunch of strawman arguments, I invite you to reach out to the authors of IPCC chapter 11: Human Health: Impacts, Adaptation, and Co-benefits and ask them why they are setting up these supposed confounded strawman arguments for me. If I can’t quote IPCC, the most trusted source of climate change information, then who can anyone trust regarding climate change information? The words I used to base my argument upon are their words, not mine. 

You state: “So Scott’s method is fatally flawed – you cannot just look at raw incidence numbers and declare there is no effect from climate change…But Scott dismisses all of this as “modeling”, which he rejects out of hand, explicitly favoring raw data, which is profoundly naive. He also dismissed data on the risks increased by climate change, again favoring raw data that mixes in many confounding variables.”

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Feb 28 2023

A Climate Debate Regarding Health Effects – Part II

Yesterday’s post was the first in an exchange about the effects of climate change on public health. Today’s post is my response.

Part II

Climate change is a critically important topic for society today, and it’s important that the public have a working knowledge of the facts, causes, effects, and potential interventions regarding climate change, so I am always happy to discuss the topic. Unfortunately, it’s a very complex topic that has been highly politicized and polarized. The science often becomes wrapped up in ideology – the best indication of this is that one’s political affiliation is the strongest predictor of the public’s opinions regarding climate change. The media, as they do in general, is happy to sensationalize the topic and often does not provide good context or background. Scientists have gotten better communicating about climate change, but not enough to override political affiliation.

My sense is the core issue is that the complexity of climate change allows everyone to cherry pick those details that fit their narrative. You can find examples to support whatever narrative you want to believe. You don’t even have to be factually incorrect (although many people certainly are), you just have to be selective in your details and interpretation. Climate change is a Rorschach test of subjective validation and confirmation bias.

I say this all because I think Scott’s narrative comes through very clearly. He contacted me asking fervently for a debate on this specific topic, the health effects of climate change. I thought this was a little odd since I have never written or expressed an opinion about this topic before. It seems he assumed what my position was based on other things I have written about climate change – that I think it’s real, it is primarily being caused by humans, and the effects are likely to be bad for the environment and human civilization. This brings up another aspect of the climate change debate, that people generally take sides and think that everyone fits relatively cleanly into the “for or against” side. Once someone thinks they have detected what side you are on, they then ascribe the entire package of views to you.

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Feb 27 2023

A Climate Debate Regarding Health Effects – Part I

This is the first entry in an exchange between me and Scott Hastings, who requested the exchange. This is his opening arguments. My response will be tomorrow’s post.


Part I:

Hi Steven, first of all, I am tremendously grateful to you for taking time to engage with me on this very important topic. Thank you.

I’d like to start by sharing just a few media articles I found that are now over 3 years old:

New York Times: November 13, 2019 “Climate Change Poses Threats to Children’s Health Worldwide

ABC News Australia: November 5, 2019 “11,000 scientists declare climate emergency warning world faces catastrophic threat

CNN: November 12, 2019 “The climate crisis will profoundly affect the health of every child alive today,

Wired: November 13, 2019 “How the Climate Crisis Is Killing Us, in 9 Alarming Charts, A new report from over 100 experts paints a devastating picture of how climate change is already imperiling human health.”

We are both physicians, so I don’t want to leave out the American Medical Association statement on climate change.

I think you get the point…We are daily inundated with a “climate emergency” just around the corner.  It also seems that all the experts (at least 97% anyway) are in some general agreement about the “devastating catastrophe” lurking somewhere out there. However, the official IPCC-5 report seems to be a whole lot less confident than the headlines mentioned above.

My aim is to take exact verbiage from IPCC-5, then apply the most up to date scientific literature available to cross-check their stated claims. Since I’m a physician, I am specifically interested in health outcomes as a result of climate change. I am looking at global health trends (since this is a global phenomena), as well as trends in global natural events like floods, fires, and hurricanes as these obviously contribute to health outcomes.  It’s simple really, in our world of experts, nobody needs to be an expert at opening the newspaper the morning after the superbowl to see who won the game. In this case, the “newspaper” is going to be scientific research literature based on global observational trends from generally that was published in the past 6 years. What I will not include is modeling studies. That’s like trying to predict who is going to win the superbowl. I’m not interested in that.  Just real-world objective observations found on google scholar or pubmed. I’m only interested in who won the superbowl, not in some supposed “superbowl prediction expert”.

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Feb 24 2023

The Future of (Unpaid) Work

If we think of the top inventions that had a positive impact on human society and our quality of life most lists would contain things like the printing press, the wheel, or the computer. One invention that should be on everyone’s list but is easy to overlook is – the washing machine. Throughout history there were a variety of methods for washing clothes, all laborious and time consuming. Today the same task is accomplished by hitting a few buttons. The impact of unpaid domestic work was profound – it changed society. Other inventions that relieved domestic tasks had a similar positive impact – indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and even pre-sliced bread.

When researching futurism for my latest book, in fact, you can see the impact of these technological developments on futurism itself. Futurists from 100 years ago mainly focused on how future technology with further relieve drudgery and increase leisure time, because that was the technological revolution they were living through. Technology was all about convenience and leisure. Future airlines would be like luxury liners with maximized comfort (if they only knew). Everything had to be automated, from brushing your teeth to drying your hands.

Despite how massively overstated it was by past futurists, reduced drudgery and freeing up time is a result of technological advance, even if we choose to fill that time with other work. In the last decade or so there has been a lot of discussion about the future of work, because it feels as if we are about to go through another revolution of similar impact to the industrial and electrical revolutions, this one involving robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Anxiety over robots taking our jobs is at least have a century old. Robots have displaced workers, but the general trend has been to create new jobs to replace displaced ones and to make workers more productive.

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Feb 23 2023

Should Tech Companies Be Liable for Content

The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) is hearing a case that will have profound effects on social media – is Google liable for a terrorist killing? The family of Nohemi Gonzalez is suing Google, because she was shot by an Islamic terrorist in 2015 and the family alleges this act was abetted by Google recommending videos encouraging such acts. Google argues it is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

In cases like this there is always legal complexity, and it’s not my intention to do a legal analysis of the case. I just want to focus on Section 230. There are some misconceptions about what it says and does not say, so here is the actual wording:

“no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The law was passed in 1996, and was meant to protect website owners from liability stemming from what third parties post on their websites. It is not, as some pundits state at times, about protective “passive” platforms. I have also heard some commenters frame it as similar to protecting phone companies for the content of phone conversations. But Section 230 specifically refers to “interactive computer service” – so, not passive.

But at the same time, this law is more than a quarter of a century old. It is literally “web 1.0” and was written prior to the social media revolution. Google itself was created in 1998, two years after this law passed. The first blog was created in 1994, but blogs were not popular until later. WordPress, the most popular blog platform, was created in 2003. Twitter was created in 2006, and Facebook in 2004.

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Feb 21 2023

A Circular CO2 Economy

Big picture time – as I have discussed before, we have just passed 8 billion people on this planet and will likely top 10 billion before populations stabilize (which is quite possible, but that’s another story).  What this means is that anything we collectively do is big. It affects every other species on Earth, it can affect the climate, and it can push the limits of natural resources. We are also getting to that point in the arch of human history that we are feeling those limits. We basically already use most of the reasonably arable land on the planet. We have already used up most of our carbon budget, assuming we don’t want the massive expense, inconvenience, and displacement caused by climate change.

Up until recently we had the luxury of treating the Earth like an unlimited resource, because it functionally was. Also, every time we think we are getting to the limits of a resource, we either find a way of extracting more or find a different way of doing things. England, for example, basically ran out of wood to heat homes and maintain its navy, but this just spawned the age of coal and ultimately the industrial revolution. Warnings of peak whatever have so far turned out to be premature. We appear to be running low on lithium, but oh wait, there is enough lithium in sea water to last for literally a million years at current use levels. What about uranium? There is 500 times as much in sea water as land-based reserved.

But this is not true for everything always. We also have to consider the consequences. In my opinion (and I think many people agree) we don’t just want to be able to continue the growth of the global economy, we also would like to preserve as much of nature as possible. Nature itself is a precious resource; it’s good for human psychology, it’s an invaluable natural laboratory, and it’s beautiful (even if we don’t consider the ethics of crowding out other species). All things being equal, it’s probably better not to figuratively and literally just pave over all of nature for our own purposes.

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Feb 20 2023

3D Printing Superalloys

This is a cool material science development that nicely illustrates recent technological advancements. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have created a superalloy using additive manufacturing (3D printing). That may not sound that impressive at first, but consider the potential here. We are seeing the confluence of multiple modern technologies. This creates a synergistic effect that allows for new possibilities and accelerated progress.

First let’s talk about alloys – which are metallic substances comprised of two or more elements. The most famous, and most useful, alloy is steel, which is an alloy of iron and carbon. Another ancient and important alloy is bronze, which is a combination of copper and tin. There are about 3,500 different alloys of steel used in industry today, each with slightly different properties. Many alloys are just iron and carbon with different percentages of carbon and different heat treatments, but there are also about 20 elements added to carbon steel to make different alloys. Alloys alter the hardness, strength, ductility, melting point, resistance to rust, and performance in different conditions.

After a couple thousand years of working with steel you may think that we have figured out most of the optimal alloys already, but 75% of modern alloys were developed in the last 20 years. Think about the number of different alloy combinations with 20 different elements, all of which can be added in different amounts. We’ve likely only scratched the surface with trial and error.

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