Friday, July 13, 2012

Birthday Wishes for Dr. Frankenstein

In our ongoing efforts to keep you apprised of significant events that might otherwise elude your attention, we alert you to the 100th celebration of the birth of Dr. Alan Turing, known in esoteric circles as the Father of Artificial Intelligence. 

A brilliant code cracker in World War II, Turing later addressed the problem of artificial intelligence.  As you well know if you’ve ever cursed your bank’s voicemail system or defied your GPS, artificial intelligence (AI), defined as the “intelligence of machines,” can be problematic.  

The problem with AI is that it’s stupid.   

But I’m getting ahead of myself.   

Of course, computers appear clever.  They can reason, deduce, problem solve, plan, learn, process natural language, perceive their environment, move and manipulate it, practice social interaction, even create.  But then so can an army of ants; and they have just as much personality. 

OK, ants can’t process natural language.  If only they could!  Instead of laying down a barrier of Agent Orange in the kitchen, we’d issue verbal threats to keep them out of the pantry.  “Be gone insects!” 

My first boyfriend was artificially intelligent.  At least that’s what my mom thought.  He was a twin and we often double-dated with his brother.  Since I lived closer than his brother’s girlfriend, they would pick me up first, and oddly, they’d both come to the door.   

When my mom saw them bounding up the sidewalk she’d announce their arrival by saying, “Here comes the wit.”  Took me a long time to get it. 

Dr. Turing proposed an experiment which became known as…wait for it…the Turing Test.  An attempt to define the standard for a machine to be called "intelligent," the Turing test declares that a computer can "think" when, through written conversation, a human interrogator cannot tell it apart from a human being.  Can a computer fool a person into thinking it’s a person too?  

So the Turing test boils down to texting.  And so far, the computer always loses apparently because it persists in distinguishing between ‘your’ and ‘you’re,’ a feat humans cannot master.  Incongruously, these results explain less about a computer’s ability to think than about human behavior, for instance all those robotic young people stalled in mid-step, staring at their Smartphones, zombie-like, their thumbs jumping around the screens mechanically.  

Yes, AI is unsettling all on its own.  But just stir in a dose of science fiction and it becomes sinister.  Visionary writers capitalize on our innate fears and distrust with some ridiculously scary scenarios that don’t seem that far from feasible.  In sci-fi horror flicks, machines don’t just want to be human; they succeed, at least by Turing’s test.  We’re fooled, we’re lulled, and then we’re in trouble.  Think Hal.  No!  Think Ash, the Science Officer onboard the commercial spaceship Nostromo.  His dispassionate machine self, housed in a human-seeming body chats up Sigourney Weaver and then allows the Alien through the airlock!    

Not to pass up a lucrative opportunity, I myself am working on a screenplay scarier still for its Spielbergian normalcy - think Pinocchio all grown up.  Sure, he’s a sweet little puppet.  He only wants to be a “real boy.”  What harm could there possibly be?  But next thing you know he moves back home, sleeps on the couch and eats all guacamole.  

Turing suggested that rather than building a program that simulates an adult mind, it would be better to simulate a child's mind and then subject it to a course of education.  Good luck with that.  Considering the mandates of No Child Left Behind coupled with abysmal educational funding, we can only expect a class of oversized automatons playing computer games all day and speaking in code.  LOL.  OMG!  Wait!  Stop! 

There you have it.  The trouble isn’t with the machines; it’s with us humans.  We always go too far.  We’re not satisfied with a robot that bumps around pretending to vacuum the floors.  No, we’ve got to have a perfect thing that will solve all our dysfunction.  An impeccable man.  A faultless woman.  Everyone else doing just what we want, cheerfully.  Next we’re shopping for our ideal mate in the eHarmony boutique at the Outer Limits Mall. 

Lovely concept.  Faulty execution every time. 

Happy Birthday to you, Dr. Turing.