LaMDA: Simple Chat Bot or Ghost in the Machine?

The Internet and social media have been buzzing for a couple of days about a Google engineer who seems to think an AI program developed by Google and called LaMDA is sentient. Huh?

Interestingly, the engineer at issue seems to have been put on administrative leave since, leaving us to ponder this. Are we really already THERE?

Though the story makes for a good one, the overall feeling around the digital campfire is that, NO, we are not there yet. At this point, no AI is not really capable of thinking for itself and coming up with mental leaps, ideas, preferences or opinions, in a way that truly approximates what we do as humans. Sure AI can make connections, but real ideas of its own? Feelings? Opinions? A personality? No, sadly it seems all that, for the time being anyway, is still science-fiction.

The reason I mention the story though, is that at some point, if we keep collectively investing in AI, there may come a time when something does come out of it that may very approximate pretty well for it is to be a person. If and when that happens, we may have to reexamine how, legally, we define a person and what rights we may want to give such digital personalities. Though this may not be a real problem for a while yet, at some point, it may very well become a real issue we’re collectively forced to contend with.

Sure, for now keyboard conversations with chat bots like LaMDA are more like parlor tricks, but it may not always remain so. Shouldn’t we collectively start thinking about this eventuality, including as to how the law may want to handle it? This kind of story begs the question.

Eh Dude, Your Car’s Leaking. No, Not Oil: Data

The online magazine The Intercept recently published an interesting piece entitled YOUR CAR IS SPYING ON YOU, AND A CBP CONTRACT SHOWS THE RISKS which I highly recommend. If you didn’t know it, yes, your car does generate a lot of data and even downloads some of it from mobile devices which connect to it over time. In a sense, nowadays, a car is a sort of mobile computer, shock full of data. What may not be apparent to the layperson is that a car in this day and age generates and retains A LOT of data pretty much any time a human interacts with it.

Though the article at issue focuses on the use of your vehicle’s data by law enforcement (when investigating crime), if you ask me, the true story actually goes quite beyond that, including the use of such data by private businesses.

Surprisingly, accessing the data held by a modern-day vehicle isn’t actually this complicated—you just need the know-how and the right tool. If you’re really determined to do so, plugging into a car these days and extracting troves of data is apparently pretty straightforward. For example, in case of accident or other incident with an insured vehicle, the insurer may send an investigator armed with the right tools to download the car’s data, which can then be analyzed at leisure, including to try and find out why the insured’s claim should be denied. Almost any car on the road today includes such capabilities and functionalities akin to a plane’s black box.

The article specifically discusses one particular tool called iVe, a product by a company called Berla. The iVe toolbox includes both hardware and software components, and even has its own mobile app, so as to make things easier for investigators in the field.

This particular tool may be used to siphon all data contained in a vehicle’s circuits, for example to further an investigation either by the police or an insurer. The product then facilitates identifying, accessing and analyzing various types of information found in modern-day vehicles—you’d be surprised how much there may be. The company’s website claims its product can be used to uncover things like:

  • Geolocation data, including what roads or streets the vehicle was driven on, etc.;
  • Events which the vehicle encountered and recorded through any of its sensors;
  • Media files (content) that a user downloaded or accessed using the on-board infotainment system (music, podcasts, etc.);
  • A list of the specific mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle over time, etc.

In practice, it seems one may even go so far as to obtain a copy of the list of contacts from mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle, the history of SMS and emails on those devices, the list of incoming and outgoing calls, the list of songs played through the on-board infotainment system, etc.

Incident which a car records may, of course, include accident-like events, but also things that the average driver may not realize are being recorded, including:

  • The speed at which the car is travelling at any given moment;
  • The changing of gears and the engine’s RPMs at any given moment;
  • Sudden acceleration or breaking;
  • The fact that the headlights were either turned on or off;
  • The opening or closing of doors; etc.

So, you were listing to PARANOID by Black Sabbath and texting your friend Mike while driving down this country road at 163 km/h, and then lost control? Yeah, your insurer can find out, for sure. In fact, almost any action taken by the human operator of the vehicle may be recorded (even more so if you plugged in your cellphone), something the average driver may not realize. The fact that this is generally not clearly disclosed to the public does play into the hands of insurers and law enforcement, as it does make their job somewhat easier when investigating incidents involving vehicles.

If it may provide some measure of comfort to you, iVe does not come cheap. The article to which we’re linking above mentions purchasing that tool for tens of thousands of dollars. At that price, your insurer (or its investigator) probably bought one, but not your next-door neighbour, even if he’s really into cars.

This is a good example of the behind-the-scene changes turning everyday objects, like cars, into electronic gizmos. If you thought a car was still just a car, you are very much mistaken it seems. In today’s world, accessing the data in that car can reveal a whole lot about you, your driving habits, including where you’ve taken that car, and how. And contrary to what some people may think, it does NOT require a whole team of CSI-like investigators merely to connect to your car.