On The Privileges of Personhood

On June 11, Google engineer Blake Lemoine made headlines when he claimed that Google’s most recent natural language processing (NLP) program, LaMDA, was sentient and thus deserving of human rights. Google dismissed his claims and placed him on administrative leave, and a whole bunch of people weighed in right away about whether an AI could be sentient. The debate around that question isn’t new. But something about the conversation seems different now, as we approach language fluency in NLPs and face all kinds of new threats to human rights. So while we can address this question of whether LaMDA is sentient, it is not the only question to consider. Perhaps we should also ask what it would mean for an AI to have rights–to be a person.

What does it mean to be a person? Who can lay claim to the rights that come with personhood? In the history of American society and law, the answer has not been consistent–who can vote or own property, receive an education, work, or access food or shelter has changed drastically over time. Whether someone possesses these rights indicates whom society deems worth preserving, whom it believes can think rationally and act politically. Historically, women, people of color, and the poor often found themselves without such rights, and the struggle to guarantee them continues to this day.

The Church insists that modern persons have a right to food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, and labor (among other things), according to Gaudium et Spes (26), and this was reaffirmed by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Personhood connotes holiness in the image and likeness of God, and such holiness demands that governments seek the common good in the protection of all persons under their care, especially the vulnerable and historically oppressed groups. Of course, although they were made explicit in Gaudium et Spes, these Christological demands–that all humans be treated like Christ—are as old as the Church itself, which has always professed, if not consistently upheld, universal human dignity.

But why limit these rights to humans? 

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