This week I read Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” featuring Turing’s arguments against resistance to the idea of thinking machines, as well as his predictions for what digital computers of the future would be able to do.
These days, many humans still have the same objections as those Turing argued against. We find thinking machines to be threatening, as in the anguish in some quarters when Deep Blue beat Kasparov in chess in 1997 (though this win has been contested as caused by a bug in the software). After the supercomputer nicknamed Watson beat out two human contestants to win at Jeopardy!, Conan O’Brien jokingly “hired” Watson to replace Andy Richter as his sidekick and announcer, much to Richter’s horror.
Determining whether a machine is truly “thinking” also invites us to explore the contours of humanity. Objections Turing dismisses, such as that machines cannot “enjoy strawberries and cream,” “have a sense of humor,” or “make someone fall in love with it” made me immediately think of the thousands of humans out there, with or without disabilities, who are unable to meet these requirements. Humans on the autism spectrum, for example, may demonstrate limited capacity to “use words properly,” and many of us—those of us writing grant proposals or academic research articles, for example—ponder whether we can actually “do something really new.” But does this mean that some humans are less than human, in the same way a machine might be? Or that some machines are more “fully” human than some humans?
Turing’s extended section on “informality of behavior” in particular reminded me of an episode of This American Life that reported on the experiences of one David Finch, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult, and his struggles to relate to his wife appropriately. To cope with the difficult-for-him task of exhibiting empathic behavior, he created an elaborate “Journal of Best Practices” (now published as a memoir) that constituted essentially a “definite set of rules of conduct by which he regulated his life,” making him, in the argument Turing entertains (and rejects) “no better than a machine,” in the eyes of some. The blurb on Finch’s book describes his process this way:
His methods for improving his marriage involve excessive note-taking, performance reviews, and most of all, the Journal of Best Practices: a collection of hundreds of maxims and hard-won epiphanies, including “Don’t change the radio station when she’s singing along” and “Apologies do not count when you shout them.” Over the course of two years, David transforms himself from the world’s most trying husband to the husband who tries the hardest. He becomes the husband he’d always meant to be.
In becoming the “husband he’d always meant to be,” he transformed himself, essentially, into a learning machine. Training himself to be empathic required a ruthlessly logical and machine-like process, with the end result that Finch became more human. Fincher explained the revelation of his diagnosis this way to Ira Glass on This American Life:
I mean, it was as if somebody finally handed me a user manual for myself. You know, here’s how you operate, and if you read this manual, everything that was difficult in life before is going to be a lot easier now, because it makes sense and you can learn how to control certain things.
So where does the line between human and machine truly lie? I think we still don’t know.