David Chalmers was not expecting the invitation he received in September of last year. As a leading authority on consciousness, Chalmers regularly circles the world delivering talks at universities and academic meetings to rapt audiences of philosophers—the sort of people who might spend hours debating whether the world outside their own heads is real and then go blithely about the rest of their day. This latest request, though, came from a surprising source: the organizers of the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS), a yearly gathering of the brightest minds in artificial intelligence. 

Less than six months before the conference, an engineer named Blake Lemoine, then at Google, had gone public with his contention that LaMDA, one of the company’s AI systems, had achieved consciousness. Lemoine’s claims were quickly dismissed in the press, and he was summarily fired, but the genie would not return to the bottle quite so easily—especially after the release of ChatGPT in November 2022. Suddenly it was possible for anyone to carry on a sophisticated conversation with a polite, creative artificial agent.

Chalmers was an eminently sensible choice to speak about AI consciousness. He’d earned his PhD in philosophy at an Indiana University AI lab, where he and his computer scientist colleagues spent their breaks debating whether machines might one day have minds. In his 1996 book, The Conscious Mind, he spent an entire chapter arguing that artificial consciousness was possible. 

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