OpenAI top scientist says AI might already be conscious. Researchers respond furiously

Who knew one simple tweet could cause such backlash?
Loukia Papadopoulos
Robot giving his hand.iLexx/iStock

It's a long-standing debate, one that this weekend made headlines: will artificial intelligence (AI) ever be conscious or is it already so?

OpenAI top researcher Ilya Sutskever took to Twitter to declare his view on the matter and saw backlash from many scientists in the field, as first spotted by Futurism.

The question that remains is: who is right?

AI is conscious, says Sutskever

It all began when Sutskever tweeted on Thursday “it may be that today’s large neural networks are slightly conscious.” This might seem like a harmless enough statement but it was met with immediate and swift backlash.

Why? According to UNSW Sidney AI researcher Toby Walsh, it's because the topic derails the conversation and perhaps even the evolution of AI. “Every time such speculative comments get an airing, it takes months of effort to get the conversation back to the more realistic opportunities and threats posed by AI,” tweeted Walsh.

Independent sociotechnologist Jürgen Geuter further called the view unrealistic. He tweeted that “it may also be that this take has no basis in reality and is just a sales pitch to claim magical tech capabilities for a startup that runs very simple statistics, just a lot of them.”

Associate professor at the IT University of Copenhagen shared Geuter's thoughts. “It may be that there’s a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars,” he quipped. “This seems more reasonable than Ilya’s musing, in fact, because the apparatus for orbit exists, and we have good definitions of teapots.”

Is it just hype?

Vice President at Citi and deep learning expert Valentino Zocca added that AI “is NOT conscious but apparently the hype is more important than anything else.”

But is the backlash warranted? Sure, claims that AI may be or may become conscious do stir up fears in people of the technology taking over but if the facts prove that the technology may be indeed advancing to that stage is it not worth mentioning?

The issue, however, seems to lie in the fact that AI is not at the point of being conscious and may never be. Starting it is so, may therefore alarm people who have no cause for worry. This may be one of those cases where time will reveal who was right and who was wrong.