Passing as Human

What have we to fear from Artificial Intelligence? It may be much, but not what we expect, or so an article in the NY Times Stone series argues. From the article,

The idea of measuring A.I. by its ability to “pass” as a human – dramatized in countless sci-fi films, from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” to Spike Jonze’s “Her” – is actually as old as modern A.I. research itself. It is traceable at least to 1950 when the British mathematician Alan Turing published “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” a paper in which he described what we now call the “Turing Test,” and which he referred to as the “imitation game.” There are different versions of the test, all of which are revealing as to why our approach to the culture and ethics of A.I. is what it is, for good and bad. For the most familiar version, a human interrogator asks questions of two hidden contestants, one a human and the other a computer. Turing suggests that if the interrogator usually cannot tell which is which, and if the computer can successfully pass as human, then can we not conclude, for practical purposes, that the computer is “intelligent”?

More people “know” Turing’s foundational text than have actually read it. This is unfortunate because the text is marvelous, strange and surprising. Turing introduces his test as a variation on a popular parlor game in which two hidden contestants, a woman (player A) and a man (player B) try to convince a third that he or she is a woman by their written responses to leading questions. To win, one of the players must convincingly be who they really are, whereas the other must try to pass as another gender. Turing describes his own variation as one where “a computer takes the place of player A,” and so a literal reading would suggest that in his version the computer is not just pretending to be a human, but pretending to be a woman. It must pass as a she.

Other versions had it that player B could be either a man or a woman. It would seem a very different kind of game if only one player is faking, or if both are, or if neither of them are. Now that we give the computer a seat, we may have it pretending to be a woman along with a man pretending to be a woman, both trying to trick the interrogator into figuring out which is a man and which is a woman. Or perhaps a computer pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, along with a man pretending to be a woman, or even a computer pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman! In the real world, of course, we already have all of the above.

“The Imitation Game,” Morten Tyldum’s Oscar-winning 2014 film about Turing, reminds us that the mathematician himself also had to “pass” — in his case as straight man in a society that criminalized homosexuality. Upon discovery that he was not what he appeared to be, he was forced to undergo horrific medical treatments known as “chemical castration.” Ultimately the physical and emotional pain was too great and he committed suicide. The episode was grotesque tribute to a man whose contribution to defeating Hitler’s military was still at that time a state secret. Turing was only recently given posthumous pardon, but the tens of thousands of other British men sentenced under similar laws have not.

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