Wednesday 9 September 2015

Passing The Turing Test

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.


Danyl said...


Nick J said...

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.

It pains me to defend the people you refer to here Chris. I can see that there are so many questions that need to be both asked and answered that they must be like rabbits caught in the headlights. Whilst their first response must surely be to do what is morally defensible (save lives) these same politicians sit on top of some enormous future predicaments.

Fr example Chris, you have highlighted the revolutionary nature of the neo liberal revolution and how it has sidelined democratic questioning and participatory democracy. Questions that should have been asked have not been asked or debated. Here in NZ we have not debated our immigration policies or the blind faith in the need for growth. End result that we have in NZ a changed demographic and attendant stresses like housing bubbles, ethnic / religious diversity, strains on state funding for health. education etc, a myriad of impacts. I am not judging this as good nor bad, merely highlighting that these things in a democracy should be a matter of public and political debate. They have not been. The same applies throughout Europe.

The MENA (Middle East North Africa) refugee crisis throws the recent past's lack of debate (and consequent lack of consensus) into sharp focus. The leaders of Europe may appear to fail the Turing test, but I suspect they have been having nightmares about what the future of this crisis holds. Luckily for them the common humanity of rank and file Europeans has intervened to guide them. Don't however let that cloud our judgment, these politicians know that Europe is deeply divided on the issue of immigration and culture. This is merely the beginning of a bigger crisis.

greywarbler said...

This is long Chris - too much?

Danyl says"kipple". For those still trying to catch up with last year's innovations, this from google.
""Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself ... the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kippleization.""
This is like today's problem - the love of the new, and the absence of understanding of the past, or wish to learn from it, while not replacing that with full understanding of the present, before rushing to embrace new developments with unknown future effects.

The example of empathy you express Chris - "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." - has been long in gathering steam. And the media have told us that reaction was only triggered by the image of a little drowned refugee boy.

I have noticed that in our own social welfare system the concern is always for the child, and the parents are shadowy. It seems to me that when people stop caring about each other's welfare, and caring concern can only be aroused by the extremely vulnerable or the extreme case, then we are back to that irritable charity prevalent before WW2. It seems that concern and giving then was like a response to an irresistible itch, something singular, and charity then demanded solutions. There was not to be an on-going exercise of humanitarianism. The post-war projects were to change this and achieve a better, fairer society on a world wide basis I thought. Right!

As for the political leaders and oligarchs. Their talk about what is needed in the world is greater productivity and efficiency as envisaged by Huxley to Orwell.
The response to recognising reported reality by the dictators is to stamp it out and the journalists and truth speakers like bush-fires.

The march past of uniformed personnel in these clips is the outward display of that outlook.
It appeals to the part of humans that enjoys automata. That loves talk of science and clever robots. That enjoys the precision of military tattoos. That doesn't find it incongruous to be spending billions spaceing to Mars and other dim stars, when we cannot manage to stem the effects of damaged nature systems with our known science on Earth.

We cannot bring our intelligence to self-analyse and to observe human traits and control those in ourselves and society that are destructive.
Why did the wars break out in the Middle East and Africa become a hotbed of cruelty? (Perhaps Leopold's Congo started the poison there?)

Do we not see that we tend to be conformist and empty-headed? Why are we not curious as to why and try to remedy this. Much time is spent in stimulating our brains every day, and not enough time spent in reflection and thoughtful contemplation. We need time for discussion of matters of importance every day over tea, juice, quiet drinks with others face to face, people together, not just in self-selected groups. That way empathy is formed, and also maintained. We are individual, we are one together.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It's always Turing. No one ever seems to remember Tommy Flowers, who actually broke the most difficult German codes, and created a much more sophisticated computer. But then, he was working class.
That aside, science fiction writers it seems to me are better by far at predicting the future than professional futurists. They also seem to revel in predicting dystopias. The film takes more from cyberpunk in its atmosphere than Philip Dick I think. But still, a great movie, requiring more thought than many. I think that humans have to be trained out of empathy. It is part of our evolutionary make up after all. But it seems remarkably easy to do, as witnessed by concentration camp guards, and the Milgram experiments. These days it seems to be a necessary qualification for politicians. And you only have to read the conversation threads on this and other sites to realise that there are millions of people who in theory lack empathy. Though I suspect is confronted by a situation requiring it they would probably reacquire it – on a one-to-one personal level at least.

Anonymous said...

Nick J, your piece was both thoughtful and sobering, I personally worry about western culture of separation of church and state as our base for democracy. Already this base is being challenged in some of the worlds oldest and strongest democratic countries.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The separation of church and state is not a western idea but an American one. The Church and state were fully integrated in most of Europe and still are somewhat.

greywarbler said...

The oldest democracies may have developed senile decay. As they are not made of stone, but are intellectual constructions, they must receive the respect and affirmation they are due daily to be strong and recognisable. I think they, and the churches. have become divorced from their mission and commitment to their core purpose.

jh said...

Where do you draw the line between empathy and your own survival? Both Syria and Kiribatti have had population problems:

Ibrahim Issa, a jovial Syrian taxi-driver who wears a blue robe over an ample belly, has nine children from two wives. He plans to marry a third wife soon.

He says it is up to Allah whether more children arrive, and not for him to interfere, say, by using contraception. Like all Damascus taxi-drivers, he complains about the cost of living and how hard it is to make ends meet on the $300 a month he earns.

Issa, 43, shrugs when asked if all those mouths to feed don't make life harder for him. "No, I'm delighted," he grins.

Nick J said...

Thanks Anon @14.38. I worry too about this separation of church and state. We seem to have developed an attitude that freedom of worship should be taken for granted, but religions (and other doctrines) should be above criticism. Neither is seriously questioned which is extremely dangerous to liberal thought. Current "progressive" thinkers come to conclusions that are often correct, but the analysis of side effects and compromised principles are often ignored.

In the case of freedom of worship it is easy to forget that less than 300 years ago Europe was torn by lethal dispute over Christian practice. To allow a church or sect to be above criticism is to encourage absolutism of thought and thence action. Should you criticise a faith or belief, this will usually result in no debate but "progressive" claims of "hate talk" and "racism" which is really a way of avoiding the issue in favour of blanket bans on opinions rather than any real debate. It is very much the case that "political correctness" which manifests as "progressive thinking" has become absolutist. For example if for some irrational reason I loudly proclaim that men are superior to women I can expect to be shouted down with ardent feminists asking for my exclusion and banning and conviction for hate talk etc. Society will join in, make me a pariah, run me out of town. You can guarantee nobody who objects will point out any rational reason for the stupidity of my position. Or stand up for my right to have ridiculous and pathetic opinions.

At some point a politically correct progressive will stand up and make a rational judgment that compromises assumed progressive orthodoxy. Who them will defend their right to differ, who will actually expose their position to constructive debate? From a religious viewpoint who will resist Fundamentalist Christians and Islamics insistance that their beliefs take precedence, and must be protected from criticism?

Anonymous said...

Stephanie says:

I didn't watch the movie, so I don't know how its makers used the Turing Test, but to consider all people who happened to be born in the Near East have an equal claim on compassion seems to me a failure in empathy. The economic Muslim migrants seem to have priority over the minorities and genuine refugees. And they have already shown they will continue to persecute the sects they persecuted in their own land.

From a far right viewpoint, they have 'earned' this by being stronger and more ruthless, but I don't think you'd agree there.

jh said...

I think we should protect societies that can keep their houses in order eg those with a balance of Presbyterian values and empathy. I don't admire the Swedish Prime Minister or other progressives who think their strong righteous position will deeply affect refugees and migrants. The Swedish PM looks down from an aeroplane and says "see!, we still have lots of land!?".
In the context of this refugee crisis we have two types of people: we are the problem and they are the problem. Note how "Pundits" like Tim Watkin's maintain a default position that we need a bigger population:
"Overshoot" is still meaningless. And you can dance on the head of a pin about what poverty means or how to measure the cost of food production, or you can take the best analysis available and get on with saving lives.

and what do you do when confronted by a counter argument from Michael Reddell/ Don Brash (and the Australian Productivity Commission and Savings Working Group)?
You appeal to authority:
And Katharine, I take from your comments you disagreed with the panellists and side more with the blogger. All good. But I can tell you without a doubt that you'd struggle to find an expert with a deeper understanding of immigration than Paul Spoonley. And while I don't entirely agree with Shamubeel on this, if you know anything about him you'll know it's preposterous to suggest he's not on top of the data and analysis on this. He eats it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Disagree all you like, but don't be under any illusion that those men aren't amongst the best read in the country on this matter (and have given it the most thought).

Guerilla Surgeon said...

People with little money or education, few prospects, and very little social welfare have lots of children. Because children are an asset not a liability economically. It's a truism I learned about 50 years ago in six form geography. It's also a truism, that when people become more educated, when children are not necessary to the economic survival of the family, and particularly when women become more educated and go out to work, they have fewer children. Many fewer. Partly at least because they are an economic liability, and partly because educated women aren't stupid. I'm not particularly theologically literate according to some, but don't Catholics in developed countries use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics? Even though the church is strictly against it. You see that is the very essence of Winston Peters, plausible ignorance.

jh said...

@ Guerilla Surgeon

how would you account for the Philippines religion forbads the economy improving because the population dilutes the wealth?

greywarbler said...

What does the reference to Winston Peters relate to? Plausible ignorance is a very good term, often but not always applicable to him, but a handy term to be used often about any poitician!

About Tommy Flowers - he was interviewed by Radionz at one time. He sounded a very engaging person and lived into his 90's. I hope that he had all his marbles to the end. He talked about this palindrome from the time at Bletchley. This from the link under:
(mathematician Peter Hilton...his masterly palindrome, the product of a sleepless night:
Turing machine -
Computers go to war: background on Turing -

greywarbler said...

Chris I've gathered a lot of links on Turing, the codes. and Flowers and Bletchley. I'm ignorant of technology so if the links cause difficulties or are not of value I realise you may decide to discard them.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

If I can make head or tail of your question JH I would have to say you need to read a little bit of geography. I did say Catholics in developed countries. The Philippines is not developed, but as it becomes developed then
people will – even if they are Catholic – use birth control. It's part of the normal development process. One of the keys is the education of women, the other is raising people above the level of subsistence. This is such a well-known thing that I'm surprised you haven't come across it. As I said, I learned it
50 years ago.