Conducting The Turing Test: The distinguishing of replicants from real humans lies at the heart of the Blade Runner movie. If thousands more refugee men, women and children are not to be lost in transit, “like tears in the rain”, then the First World’s leaders must prove that they, too, are human.
BLADE RUNNER is one of my favourite movies. From the film’s opening sequences, introducing a compellingly dystopian Los Angeles, to the stark poetry of the doomed replicant, Roy Batty’s, final moments, we are invited to consider, exactly, what it means to be human.
Based on the science-fiction writer, Philip K Dick’s, novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the movie raises all sorts of intriguing possibilities vis-à-vis the future of the human species. Not the least of these is the possibility that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, our technology may be able to replicate human-beings that are not only indistinguishable from the original – but more honourable and compassionate.
The distinguishing of replicants from real humans lies at the heart of the Blade Runner story. How to prevent these bio-mechanical devices from deceiving men and women into misidentifying them as fellow human-beings – that is the challenge.
From the moment they were conceived, the potential power of “thinking machines”, computers, troubled their creators. As the capacity of these machines increased, and the scope of their capabilities expanded, the ability of average human-beings to differentiate the computer from one of their own kind would, presumably, diminish. It was certainly a possibility that intrigued the father of the modern computer, Alan Turing.
Looking fifty years into the future, Turing, the mathematical genius who, by helping to crack the Germans’ Enigma Code, shortened the Second World War by two to four years, saw the need for some sort of test. The question he posed was: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” His answer was an emphatic “Yes”. He predicted that the computers of the future, responding to human questioners with text only answers, would be able to pass the “Turing Test” (i.e. fool the interrogators) about 70 percent of the time.
Blade Runner was released in 1982. Thirty-three years ago, the year 2019 seemed far away enough for all the technological wonders appearing in the movie to have been realised. Sadly, or, perhaps, fortunately, humanity has yet to develop a significant “off-world” presence. And, while the science of robotics displays considerable momentum, replicants of Roy Batty’s sophistication still seem a long way off.
And yet, the questions raised by Philip K Dick, and translated into film by Ridley Scott, have not gone away. Indeed, computers have become so critical to human existence that it is now possible to ask whether the age-old desire to make machines that replicate humans has been abandoned in favour of a new mission to make humans that replicate machines.
More and more human-beings are defining themselves in terms of the networks they log-in to – so much so that to suddenly find themselves shut out of those networks would severely curtail their ability to function successfully. Increasingly, we are redefining and reprocessing experience in technological terms. A century ago, people marvelled that the moving images projected onto the cinema screen were “Just like real life!” A century later, people observe real life events and exclaim: “Just like the movies!”
Except that the real world is nothing like a movie, or, at least, like no movie any First World audience would willingly sit through. The ridiculously short and tightly edited clips of reality that appear on our devices convey only a fraction of the enormous scale and intensity of human suffering occurring out there in unmediated space – the real world.
The intrusion of tens-of-thousands of refugees into the European Union; a flood tide of human misery unprecedented since the end of World War II; is setting up a kind of Turing Test in reverse. In effect, the crisis is posing the question: “Are there imaginable First World human-beings who would do well in the imitation game?” Will the people fleeing from the unending stress and horror of the Middle East and Africa still recognise them as fellow humans, or, have they become so integrated with their devices as to be indistinguishable from machines?
The good news is that not even in the highly-networked, hyper-mediated nations of the First World has the capacity for human empathy been totally eliminated. Indeed, the devices that objectively distance us from reality are, paradoxically, without peer in carrying powerful emotional messages across all manner of boundaries. This is by no means an unqualified good, but in relation to the global refugee crisis it is proving to be a powerful goad for official action.
Less certain of passing the Turing Test, however, are the First World’s political leaders. Indeed, their responses are so emotionally out-of-sync with the rest of humanity that they seem more replicant than representative. If thousands more refugee men, women and children are not to be lost in transit, “like tears in the rain”, then the First World’s leaders must prove that they, too, are human.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 September 2015.