Thursday, April 04, 2013

Turing Test

The first short story I ever wrote was called "Turing Test." It imagined a young man fooled into corresponding with a computer. The punchline was, the machine was in no way alive. It was just crudely recycling phrases from a linguistic database.

It wasn't a very strong story really. The way I conveyed the computer's patchwork prose was clunky and obvious and unconvincing. But the idea of it sticks with me. Especially as we're now hearing about machines that write news articles and grade student essays.

There are many valid criticisms of these sorts of efforts. At least one prominent young cultural critic has been on twitter all day laying into the idea that machines can think. Indeed, the firms behind these automated techniques have every reason to spin and hype their machines well beyond their actual capabilities.

Still, I think it is worth taking the idea that they might succeed seriously.

I guess I find the notion of an external machine automaton writing plausible because, for me, the experience of writing is one of being dependent on internal, biological automata. I don't always know exactly where the words come from or why they go together. They just show up, sort of, and I put them down on the page. Often, they emulate the voice of an author I've recently been reading. I sometimes think of the unconscious-me that serves up words as my "language engine."

This is why I sometimes struggle to teach writing. Because I, myself, am not always consciously aware of how it is that I come to write.

I'm pretty sure the science fiction author William Gibson is talking about a similar writing experience when he talks about writing as a process he carries out as a collaboration with his "subconscious" in the documentary No Maps For These Territories. So I'm guessing this isn't just me.

Thus, we are confronted with yet another specter: the spectre of the preconscious writing machine, which is the spectre of the final and ultimate unbundling: that of productive work and lived experience.

For even as authors may have lived with the language engines inside our heads for a very long time, we still felt to some degree coextensive with them. And in any event, we could not be separated, if you wanted it, you had to feed us. And our relationship with it felt so intimate, it was part of our everyday life, our identity, our expression. Every word to a loved one, every argument with a rival, it was embedded in it all.

So surely, we must have thought, this cannot be alienated. Long after the ditch digger and the line worker and even the musician have been automated out of existence, we will still be here. Surely language is the fundamental measure of the human. It is the core, after all, of the humanities.

But what if, what if, it isn't anymore, within our lifetimes? What if experience must face the world alone, shorn of productive value?

What then?

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