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The Ballad of the Tin Man

Written for Ours, Scientifica for the NUS Science Journalism Club

Turing believes machines can think Turing lies with men Therefore machines do not think
- Alan Turing

The above syllogism appears at the end of a letter Turing wrote to his friend in which he conveyed his distressing situation of being put under house arrest and suffering through chemical castration due to his sexual orientation. Turing would later commit suicide in 1952 by eating a cyanide-laced apple. It is against this backdrop that I would like to draw your attention to a paper he published. Just 2 years prior to his suicide, Turing published Computing Machinery and Intelligence. You may know this paper by its more colloquial name, The Imitation Game.

But before we play this intriguing game of subterfuge, allow me to tell you a bit about the man whose shadow looms over modern computing. Alan Turing was a mathematician who essentially birthed the modern computer. During the Second World War, he was enlisted by the British government to work on cracking the German Enigma machine which was used to encode all of their military communications. Turing and the team from Bletchley Park developed an electromechanical automated machine to decode Nazi messages. To put their contributions into context, if we were silent for 1 second for every person they saved, we would be silent for 186 days.

To truly understand Turing’s work, I suggest we look no further than the 2 papers that bookended his career, namely his doctoral thesis and The Imitation Game. A concept that was developed by the mathematician was the notion of a computer. Now let me ask you, dear reader, what is a computer? I assert that the notion of a computer is not simply a bunch of circuits, a screen and an RGB keyboard. To quote computer scientist Dijkstra, “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” Here, Dijkstra is referring to computers in the literal colloquial sense. Turing defined the essence of a computer to be a discrete state Turing machine with infinite memory. Those are a bunch of fancy words to say that a computer is simply something that, given a set of instructions, can process those instructions and execute them in a rational manner to completion. That's it.

What Turing dreamt up was an agent of pure rationality; one free from the bondages that tie mankind to this world. Now he asked, could we tell such a being from a human? Can a computer, a rational agent, which we lock in a room and communicate to only via text, imitate a human and convince us so? That is, in essence, what The Imitation Game is. To play this game is simple. Let us just ask the entity questions. But if I were to ask,

What’s your favourite equation?

And it were to reply

∀𝑃 { [𝑃(0) ∧ ∀𝑘(𝑃(𝑘) → 𝑃(𝑘 + 1)) ] → ∀𝑛(𝑃(𝑛)) }

You would say this isn't a great question. And rightfully so. We instinctively know that certain questions are more evocative of the human spirit than others. The above response is what we would expect from a robot. If we asked a human for example, “Do you get lonely?” or “How does Les Misérables show themes of inequality?”, we expect an emphatic answer, an answer that shows understanding about the human condition. We would expect answers like, “I do. Sometimes I go days without talking to anyone, and I start to feel lonely” and “Fantine is trapped in her circumstances and has no possible way to get out of them.” Right? But what if I told you those answers were quotes verbatim from an AI developed by Google called LaMDA?

Now I’m not here to tell you the AI revolution is upon us, and it's time for us to praise our robotic overlords. The modern narrative surrounding AI is that humans and AIs aren't too different and so we can make systems of pure rationality and intelligence and these entities will either solve all our problems or kill us all depending on your flavour of sci-fi inclination. That is also the traditional reading of Turing’s paper, i.e. it’s a blueprint for how to create a sentient rational agent. Yet, it is my assertion that this is not the case. Turing was not exalting AIs, he was instead showing us the limitations of rationality and championing the human spirit in all its ugly, humane ways. And the reason for this mismatch between reality and assumption, is how we view our scientists and intellectuals.

We view Turing not as a man, but as an “AI”, a being of pure rationality. We strip him of his human voice and read his papers in a robotic monotone. But remember, this is a man who (at the time of writing) had essentially helped save millions of lives and was a hero in every sense of the word. Yet, because of his sexual orientation, Turing was sentenced by the very government he helped save, injected with oestrogen to the point of being impotent, developed breasts, and was put under house arrest. We want to brush this under the carpet, yet to do so would be insidious, if we are honest. I don’t think it is fair if we overlook the fact that the concept of AI came from a man who, after having saved people who were being killed for who they were, was killed for who he was. I believe a more accurate reading of The Imitation Game is a reductio ad absurdum where Turing essentially said, “well if I’m not human enough because of my human urges, here's a being free of all human urges. Why is this not human enough for you?”

But I suspect your hesitancy to take what I am saying to be true, after all I am only asserting these. Allow me to try to convince you.

Turing wrote that AI was like humans and we could build one to replace us.

Turing lies with men AI is not like humans

Does this calculus of logic seem fuzzy? It should because it is. Yet this uses similar reasoning to

Turing deserves rights Turing lies with men Turing does not deserve rights

Where the latter was justified in Turing’s time. What The Imitation Game showed is that we humans are in no way rational. We are messy, we are ugly and we are human. We come in a myriad of fashions and we try to make sense of this world with our senseless mind. There may be 377 and 1 things wrong in the world, but humans feeling human feelings is not one. Turing’s triumph is that of the human spirit that fought against terrible odds. To reduce him to just a brain in a jar is unfair.

But what do I know? I’m just a brain in a jar after all.

sudo shutdown -n now


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