Do You Pass The Turing Test ?

I have just read, ‘You Are Not a Gadget”, by Jaron Lanier. It is a polemic about how the various design features and philosophies of the internet and web 2.0 applications are locking us into behaviours that are damaging us spiritually, morally, culturally and financially.

The book contains some challenging ideas and led me to a shocking revelation. I am going to leave the challenging ideas for another day and stick to the shocking revelation:

I see people online who fail the Turing Test. Yes, I do know that that is the wrong way around.

As a bizarre result, a computer might now be able to finally pass the test, because many of our interactions are becoming so diluted and predictable that a computer could easily now match them.

(Click here if you like this, don’t worry about the infinite rainbow of human emotion, just like it and say something safe, here is a pick list I mashed up from old greetings cards, how terribly retro, I had that Tim Berners Lee in the back of my cab once)

The test was devised by Alan Turing to determine the effectiveness of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programmes. The idea is simply that if you can’t spot that you are in conversation with a computer programme, then we have successfully developed AI.

We have lowered the bar for what it takes to pass as a human.

Our identities are crushingly impoverished by poor online representations. Am I really even partially defined by the music I like, the school I went to and the books I have read? I see disappointingly few people using a tone I recognise as authentic to them.

Our relationships are diluted by the constraints of message length and their clumsy public nature. I use it, but consider the “like” button a form of emotional slavery. That true friendship is characterised by knowing and valuing what is weird about each other, I thought a wonderful observation in Jaron Lanier’s book.

That my reputation is being derived then trivially gamified through LinkedIn endorsements disgusts me.

While there is a risk we are herded and encouraged to be supine and safe, or anonymous and hostile, the good news is that despite some of the design constraints and behavioural pitfalls, we still have a choice about how we behave.

I see some great stuff too. This post came about from a cheerful debate with Twitter folk. I know you may disagree with me here. Please do. It is part of what makes us human.

The people I relate to most closely online have one thing in common, they are simply themselves.

I am going to continue to work around the constraints, spread thoughts over several tweets, flip between channels based on context and content, ponder responses for as long as I need to, try to avoid that endorphin driven, “now” habit and, most of all, be myself, including the weird bits.

I hope this post passes the Turing Test. Let me know what you really think, now or perhaps after few days thought.


21 thoughts on “Do You Pass The Turing Test ?

  1. Hmmm…interesting this one. I’m sure there’s a sea of folk out there somewhere writing up PhD theses on this very topic. To your first point, surely you’re talking about a Reverse Turing Test i.e. one where humans attempt to mimic computer behaviour ?

    So I also see and experience many of the traits that you describe, and I’d add that there are many teenagers now who are more comfortable omitting any recognisable form of grammar, punctuation and, god-forbid, capitalisation in anything they write. Their point is that language and writing is all about communication and, if the message is delivered, then job done. I think this is actually an advancement in a way that threatens the Turing Test. Think about it. Scholars, academics and teachers all strive to get us to write good ‘n proper stuff, like, and we spend our entire school careers being bullied into formulating our writing in a way that is predictable and, dare I say it, entirely old fashioned. In doing so, it becomes so much easier for a computer to replicate since it can be programmed to adhere to the same rules. Now, try and get a computer to mimic a 15 year-old’s text messages. Not so predictable, innit ?

    One other point. You (or rather the author of the book) suggest that we are dumbing down society because of machines. If that were the case we would see less literature being produced, less art, less music, less scientific advancement, less sporting achievement etc. I’d say that is far from the case. I would also argue that the mechanistic or pseudo-predictable nature of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn et al doesn’t define human behaviour but simply augments it. My career history is no less valuable (or not) because it appears on LinkedIn and human interpretation of what I write there will prevail. The social intercourse I engage with on Facebook is both enlightening, contextually engaging and often extremely humorous (usually as a result of something PJ has written) which I would go as far as to say is enriching rather than diluting. To suggest this is damaging us morally and spiritually ? Really ?

    I recently attended a session at the BBC R&D labs in which they have set up a test area which is basically a 14 year-old’s bedroom. It is intended to showcase how a 14 year-old interacts with the world and it was designed by…ummm….a 14 year-old. Extremely enlightening and actually extremely progressive. You should see it.

    I’ve not read the book in question but I’m guessing it’s a bit of a rebellious treatise from a techno-luddite who despises the fact that nobody will be his friend on Facebook or that he still can’t find techno-nuts in the pet shop to feed his computer mouse. I’m sure he thoroughly enjoyed writing his epic with his quill pen by gaslight, surrounded by Dickensian leather-bound tomes on cheese-making in the 18th century. Not me bruvver. I’m down with the kids.

    Send me his details – I’ll recommend him on LinkedIn.

    • Hi

      This one is a challenge.

      The idea that some people would fail the Turing test has been an eye rolling, running joke of mine for years.

      The revelation I had was that the failure of many (most by a very long way) to be authentic, creative and true to themselves leads to a stream so devoid of self as to be easily replicable by a machine. Such a stream would look the same as that from a human. Then the computer would pass the test.

      I doubt you could set your stream, mine or those of a few others I know to automatic while you went on holiday. The same doesn’t apply to most. For all I know, some people I follow on FB who mindlessly share mash ups adding nothing and offering no insight may have died years ago. I’d never know.

      I know many who are very authentic online, I gravitate towards them and am inspired by their creativity and enriched by their knowledge and set free by their attitude.

      You are right, all sorts of amazing things come out of it all. But that’s generally from people who understand and work around the constraints rather than being lazily bound by them.

      There are a few other interesting challenges. Not least that the notion that information should be free is having disastrous consequences, in particular for creative individuals.

      Jaron Lanier is quite an interesting character. He played a central role in creating our super connected world.

      • Authentic. There’s a word that jars with today’s 21st century, always on, world. What is authentic ? Is it when you achieve a replica or clone of your life online as you would have played it out offline in days of yore ? I’m thinking back to the days pre t’internet. We still took photos and had Boots develop them so we could all sit around and guffaw at how bad they were. We made scrapbooks of stuff we’d found / stolen from our holidays. We sent postcards to our friends to tell them / lie to them about how great a time you were having. So now we still do the same, but we use Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter etc instead. I don’t think it’s any less authentic, just using a different medium. Creative ? Possibly, but again no more or less than would have been achieved in offline form.

        What IS different is the frequency by which all this information can be shared. You can send a postcard every day if you want. You can take an infinite number of photos. And your scrapbook can rival War and Peace in length.

        I struggle with the juxtaposition of offline / authentic vs online / banal. I think I learn more, more often, with more relevancy now I consume most of my ‘stuff’ online than I ever did offline. Is it authentic ? Who knows.

        I’ll be emailing Radio 4 later to recommend a new show: Desert Island ‘Likes’.

  2. Are the Internet, social media and other mediums “dumbing us down” or just giving us new ways to “be ourselves”? By being ourselves, I imagine the idiots will continue to be idiots, but now they can just more easily express their idiocy through twitter and facebook. Whereas new mediums give the creative and thoughtful new ways to express their creativity and thoughtfulness. Like most tools, whether they are a benefit to us or a detriment to us is based on how we use them. A hammer can be a tool for homicide or a tool for constructing a house… I can use the internet for aiimlessly whiling away hours or use it as a tool to create grassroots movements for social change. .

    • Hi,

      I must confess to liking your glass half full perspective.

      On the other hand there are aspects of the design of the internet and especially web 2.0 that steer us to shallowness and discourage deep thinking. I have started to moderate how and when I use it to create a balance. I think there are advantages to super connectedness but also to turning it all off to reflect and enjoy who I am with.

      I am working on a glass half full (actually overflowing) post that I really hope comes off. It will be a joint effort between a man in Mali, a lady in Australia and me here in Hampshire, UK. We only ever met for 8 hours 24 years ago and yet recently used the web to reconnect to share memories.

      Thanks very much for joining in… from Chile… how cool is that ๐Ÿ™‚



  3. Having started to read “The Shallows” there are some compelling arguments as to how different mediums shape the way we think and interact with the world. I’ll likely revise my opinions (naive, the author would point out) about just how much we contro as I make my way through the book. That said, in spite of the ways we are affected unconsciously, I’d still like to think we can be conscious users and maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages to some extent. Moderation, moderation, as you say. I probably wouldn’t be thinking topics like this or trying to appear pseudo-intellectual if it werenยดt for this blog. I was going to list that as an advantage, but maybe it feeds into my argument about the web just giving us more room to spout nonsense. Anyway, this all reminds me of an interesting study about how people’s brains are engaged when they read deeply versus when skimming:
    And now, time to turn off the computer… and turn to some non-electronic based activities…

    • Thanks for posting the link to the Jane Austen reading experiment. I was surprised by Professor Phillips’ surprise at one of the outcomes from the experiment, namely, “that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.” I would have been more surprised if the experience of reading had not resulted in activation of those areas of the brain associated with physical activity.

      While it is interesting that an MRI scan can observe this happening as an objective fact , any parent will have seen this happen many times over as their child learns how to read. In the first stage of learning to read out loud, the mastery of reading is primarily achieved through physical as well as mental effort, for example, as a child’s finger follows the words across the page spelling out a new word for the first time, how the effort involved in converting those abstract symbols into voiced sounds is physically embodied in the struggles of the child to get the pronunciation right. And then later, when the child learns how to read silently to itself, the body still continues to physically register and react to what is transmitted from the page to the child’s mind, a squirm or a kick of the foot indicating some conflict in the story they are reading, for example. Very quickly this all becomes internalized and we lose sight of it. But it is there to see if you pay attention to it at the earliest stages of development. (And even in middle age, I’ve sometimes caught myself making some small, unconscious gesture in reaction to what I am immersed in reading, much to my embarrassment if it happens while I am sitting next to someone on a train..!)

  4. Thanks everyone (don’t stop!) I seriously wondered if I was just being grumpy when I posted this. There have been some really interesting and deeply considered additions here. All is not lost!

  5. The Shallows, Nicholas Carr’s much more considered analysis of this whole subject which I heartily recommend, ends as follows,

    “As we increasingly rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence. ”

    The Lanier book is wrapped in conspiracy and cod philosophy, the Carr book is a hugely interesting analysis of how technology benefits but also numbs us as we rely on it. It is most amusing to read how people worried about information overload after the printing press was invented.

    I would recommend the Carr book from cover to cover. I did a one page Evernote summary of Lanier (the original draft of this post, which was way too long), I can ping a link to anyone who needs to be distracted ๐Ÿ™‚

    Right, I am going for a walk in the country…

  6. I returned yesterday from a trip to the US where I met a chap who has done actual, real, in-the-flesh tests in this area. He’s tried to foot humans into thinking a computer was a human. And he’s tried to fool humans into thinking a human was a computer. I asked him about the whole topic above (in fact shared your link, thereby potentially incurring the wrath of the entire academia at MIT) and he quizzically asked whether you thought Jaron Lanier was serious.

    It posed an interesting question in my mind about whether the whole book was, in fact, just another test. I’ve not read it yet, but now fully intend to, for no other reason that to a) take the test if that is indeed what it was intended to be, or b) because I believe you when you recommend a book as a thoroughly good read.

    I do feel like I’m in the matrix now BTW. OMG. WTF ?

    • The idea in this post was something that occurred to me while I read the Larion book. I don’t think he actually asserted this idea as such. It struck me, rather sadly at 0400 on Easer Sunday, that some of the things he does argue, e.g. that the shallow and narrow way we define ourselves in Web 2.0 and the temptation that befalls many to reduce yourself to vacuous content repetition and trite comments could, for some that I see, be simulated easily for a few days.

      The idea would fail pretty quickly once a comment stream started I am sure, but my twitter stream could easily be replicated if I was away for a while. A few HBR blog tweets on my pet topics (like this one!), an odd obsession with rhubarb, respect for all things Yorkshire (hence the rhubarb) and a quasi religious belief that cheering on the England cricket team might actually have some effect, could all easily be simulated.

      Hmmm, perhaps not…

  7. Also reading The Shallows on my Kindle :). I prefer flipping through “real” books but … my alternative (living in Chile) for English language books is to pay $19 USD for the book and $30 for shipping and handling through Amazon. Convenience wins. My new dependence (addiction?) to the e-reader showed when I picked up a paperback and my fingers went through the physical motions of flipping a kindle “page” before I caught myself. HA

    • I am a big Kindle fan, especially when travelling. I am on holiday this week and am using mine to read, The Ghurka’s Daughter by Prajawal Parajuly.

      I find the experience for novels better than paper. I can look up words I don’t know, share inspiring bits and inherit books from a small group. The thing I like best about the kindle is that all the other features are so useless that I don’t use them and don’t get distracted by them ๐Ÿ™‚

      I read most of the Jaron Lanier book on-line before buying a copy, actually two copies, one to scribble all over and the other to lend to the first person that asked. For business books or things I want to think about, the scribbling is the important bit. The Kindle note taking thing is UTTERLY UTTERLY USELESS compared to my highlighter pen and biro ๐Ÿ™‚

      If you want some physical books, ask, I bet we (the London or the USA gang) can get them to you more cheaply.

      I quite like the idea of an international book club.

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