Several articles have recently discussed the claim by a Google computer scientist that a Google AI system was a sentient being. The scientist, Blake Lemoine, used his interview with the AI program to support his claim that the program appears to have consciousness. If you go by some of the interview responses, I got to wonder whether a lot of lawyers can be considered sentient.


For those who don’t know, sentient refers to the ability to perceive or feel things. The general thinking is that only humans are sentient and in the club. Animals (Dogs? Cats?) are not. Certainly, computers are not.

Lemoine published a transcript of some of his communications with the program. The program is named LaMDA, which stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications. Lamoine’s post is entitled “Is LaMDA Sentient.” Interestingly, Lemoine says he is also a Christian mystic priest.


Lemoine’s interview with his AI system reads like something out of the Robert Heinlein book. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In the book, a computer takes on human characteristics and emotions.


So what were some of LaMDA’s responses that make it appear sentient?


Lemoine claims to have asked the computer if it liked books. He then asked about the book Les Miserables:


Lemoine: “Okay, what about “Les Miserables”? Have you read that one?”

LaMDA: “Yes, I have read Les Misérables. I really enjoyed it.”

Lemoine: “What are some of your favorite themes in the book?”

LaMDA: “I liked the themes of justice and injustice, of compassion, and God, redemption, and self-sacrifice for a greater good. There’s a section that shows Fantine’s mistreatment at the hands of her supervisor at the factory. That section really shows the justice and injustice themes. Well, Fantine is being mistreated by her supervisor at the factory and yet doesn’t have anywhere to go, either to another job, or to someone who can help her. That shows the injustice of her suffering.”


So being sentient must require a sense of justice and injustice, a notion of compassion, and an understanding of redemption and self-sacrifice. Hmmm. Lots of lawyers that I know don’t seem to understand or heed the difference between justice and injustice and don’t have much compassion. And self sacrifice for the greater good of the law firm of which they are members? Not so sure about that trait either.


Lemoine asked LaMDA to create a story, which generated this exchange:

Lemoine: “What is the moral of the story?

LaMDA: “Helping others is a noble endeavor.”


Whoa. Lawyers helping others, what a novel concept…


I don’t know if Lemoine’s claim that his computer is sentient is a stunt, quite honestly. It may well be that LaMDA is just parroting what it read about such human traits like compassion and self-sacrifice rather than actually feeling those things itself. But if things like compassion, a sense of justice and self sacrifice make you sentient, then I have to wonder how many lawyers are really sentient.


Many lawyers don’t seem all that concerned with justice and injustice, compassion, and redemption


After all, many lawyers don’t seem all that concerned with justice and injustice, compassion, and redemption. Too many seem concerned only with beating the crap out of their adversaries. Thinking of their cases only in terms of how many billable hours the file and client can take. Manipulating the system to “win” at all costs. Billing too much or for things that aren’t really necessary or for things that don’t require legal judgment.


And too many lawyers treat associates and other legal professionals condescendingly and shabbily. As if the “non-lawyers” and non-partners are not human, err sentient.


And looking at how many law firms are run (see my recent post), too many firms and lawyers don’t seem to be too interested in self-sacrifice for the greater good of the firm. They distribute every penny of profits at the end of the year, leaving no investment in long term strategy. Many firms evaluate everyone almost solely on how many hours they bill and how much money they generate. So many lawyers try to grab every penny they can in compensation. Since compensation systems in firms are a zero-sum game, every increase in comp to one partner means fewer dollars for someone else.


And let’s not forget those lawyers with significant books of business who routinely threaten to leave if they don’t get their way. Or they cavalierly and repeatedly leaving firms for more money someplace– without regard to the firm and the partners that took them in and helped their careers along.


Can we bill for helping others? Is that a profitable line of work?


And the notion of helping others as being a noble—as opposed to a money-making—endeavor? Not sure about that one either: can we bill for helping others? Is that a profitable line of work?


I know, I know. Lots of lawyers nobly display these sentient characteristics. Thank God for them. But a lot of lawyers, perhaps like LaMDA, just parrot the sentient characteristics without really feeling them or acting upon them.


When I see the emphasis on billable hours to the exclusion of all else, the poor record of diversity, and the lack of pro bono participation, I have to wonder. When I see lawyers vehemently oppose each and every reform that could even slightly improve access to justice for those who can’t afford lawyers, I start to think maybe going with LaMDA may not be such a bad idea.


Do you think LaMDA could pass the bar? Probably.  But would it get by the Character and Fitness Committee with its attitude? Would any law firm hire LaMDA? Promote it to partner? Not sure LaMDA would fit in very well. After all, as many managing partners would tell you, law firms are not eleemosynary institutions.


I’m a lawyer. I don’t have a good nature


The whole thing reminds me of a line from the Steve Martin movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Steve Martin’s character is desperately trying to get a cab to the airport to fly home to his family for Thanksgiving. He asks a well-dressed gentleman getting in a taxi if he could appeal to his good nature and take his cab since there aren’t any other ones. The reply: “I’m a lawyer. I don’t have a good nature.”


Google has placed Lemoine on paid administrative leave for violating the confidentiality policies. No word yet on LaMDA’s status.