Not a Window But a Mirror: Technology, Alan Turing, and Me

On June 8th, just a day after the 60th anniversary of British mathematician Alan Turing’s death, the University of Reading in announced that the chatbot program known has “Eugene Goostman” had passed the infamous Turing testthe highest honor in artificial intelligence. Eugene, operating under the persona of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy speaking English as his second language, engaged in five-minute conversations with 30 human judges and managed to convince 33% of them that he was human. This feat seems to pass a simplistic reading of the Turing test: an assessment of artificial intelligence based on the research and conclusions of Turing, known as the father of modern computer science.

I’ve written about Alan Turing before: two years ago this June, when he was honored with a Google Doodle for his 100th birthday. I’d read about Turing’s life before then, even, and because of his alternatively noble and tragic story, had developed a fascination with him. When I upgraded to my first smartphone—the steadfast old iPhone 4 that I still use today—I named him Alan, being the kind of person who named my technology. All problems of personifying machines aside, the summer that I wrote that article was the summer that technology began to intertwine with my personal life in an intimate way. My two most constant companions that summer were my iPhone and my laptop, both of which not only served as guides through an unfamiliar city and records of my time there, but as connections to the wider social world I felt so separate from at times.

I was effectively alone in my life for the first time, physically separated from any network of friends, family, or institution that had supported me throughout my life. I had just finished my first year at Amherst and was living and interning in New York for the summer. I wasn’t a complete hermit: I lived in a dorm with other college students interning with various organizations; I knew some people living or working in a couple of the boroughs nearby. I wasn’t on my own in the sense that I had no support, but I was, paradoxical as it seems in New York, quite often alone—mentally, if not quite literally.

And like the good liberal arts student I was trying to be, I spent a lot of time thinking critically about my aloneness—not wallowing in it, but examining it. Technology wasn’t so much a means of combating aloneness but engaging with it, finding a home in it. Technology became the filter that allowed me to interact with the world while staying separate from the world. As a new writer for the website that was transitioning from She-bomb to ACVoice, I poured my most random, trivial and even repetitive thoughts into weekly blog posts that ranged in topic from books I was reading to my love for Alan Turing (all qualitative judgments aside, it was a remarkably prolific time period, one which I have not yet been able to recreate).

Perhaps it is the Turing connection, or maybe just symmetry that pairs together my first and last real “Amherst summers,” but recently I’ve often found myself mentally returning to those months in New York. I feel as though I am walking down a familiar road I haven’t visited for two years, but the repetition of the path makes me fully realize the weight that those two years have had in my development—in the difference between who I expected to be at this point, and who I actually am.

These feelings and the parallel circumstances of the two summers have drawn me back to reading some of my old articles—an experience not unlike rereading a diary, albeit one with a bit more polish and craft. It feels more like talking to my younger self, the nineteen-year-old who was awkward and unsure of herself, but so eagerly optimistic at the time. This was the time when I was just beginning to “find my voice” as a writer and a person, forced into self-reflection by the sheer circumstances of being an individual alone in a city of millions.

This summer so far seems to be an odd repetition compulsion of my experiences two years ago. Although I am in Amherst for most of the summer, due to my living situation (off-campus without consistent access to transportation) I find myself having very few social interactions. Most of my time is spend alone or with a dog (he came with the house). It’s sometimes disconcerting to hear the sound of my voice because I don’t speak aloud that much—a phenomenon oddly characteristic of this summer as well as my one in New York. Fundamentally, this is a different kind of aloneness: I am much more “fenced in,” as well as physically isolated. Amherst naturally is much smaller than New York, and my world within it is smaller still, as my living situation makes it easier to stay in the house than not.

Again, I find that the majority of my interactions are mediated through technological devices. The Internet is one of the reasons I’m still sane: it keeps me from being a complete recluse, ignorant of current events and devoid of social skills. But more than that, it’s allowed me to engage in a type of self-reflection I haven’t experienced before. As I read back over the articles I wrote that summer and over the rest of my time at Amherst, I have the chance to interact with myself, or at least, with the self that I used to be.

As the inevitable senior year nostalgia sets in, it’s comforting to look back at that nineteen-year-old. In some ways, it feels like she’s looking back and examining me as well: while two years has brought me more confidence, the (hopefully endearing) awkwardness is still there, and maybe that strain of optimism isn’t quite dead. I know that I at least haven’t changed much in how I approach my writing deadlines—this piece was meant to be posted a week and a day ago, for Alan Turing’s birthday on the 23rd.

Although earlier this month the Eugene chatbot tricked more than 30% of judges into believing that he was a human being, doubts remain as to whether or not the program’s success falls within the bounds of the test, and, beyond that, what it might even mean for us to declare it “intelligent.”

Reading over the transcripts of various conversations with Eugene, I wondered if I would have been tricked as well. Of course, it’s easy to convince myself that I would recognize Eugene’s odd responses as non-human when I know the truth.

Eugene’s response to being asked how many legs an ant has:

Something between 2 and 4. Maybe, three? :-))) Oh, what a fruitful conversation;-)

The conversations are rife with repetitive loops and distracting counter-questions as Eugene picks up on recognizable words here and there and generates responses that will hide the gaps in the program’s knowledge. While Eugene is clever, there is something lacking there, something that separates him even from the frank, unfiltered grammar characteristic of those who haven’t grown up expressing themselves on the Internet.

I felt a weird relief at the stilted text of Eugene’s responses and articles denouncing the validity of the success. The feeling came less from a worry about the power of a truly intelligent AI (which Eugene is decidedly not) or a potential step close to the singularity, but something more personal: science surpassing Turing’s would somehow feel like rendering irrelevant the misunderstood British scientist and the nineteen-year-old girl who loved him enough to blog about it. Somehow it would feel like the death of the optimism and sheer naïve energy of that girl, making it harder to find her again today.

This summer, as I find myself so often alone with myself once again, I am grateful for the reflective quality that technology brings to my isolation. The notorious longevity of information that appears on the Internet is not just a hazard to future political careers or a symptom of our desire to be “prosthetic Gods.” It has the potential to become not a window to the world but a mirror into ourselves: a means of preserving who we used to be, capturing our past selves and allowing them to live on and be referred to at the whim of our internet connection or privacy settings.