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Will Androids Ever Feel Real? The Turing Test and Cultural Autism

Have you ever heard of the Turing test? Years ago, I encountered it in Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter’s 1981 book The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. It’s bugged me ever since. Put forth by Alan Turing in a 1950 paper on computing and intelligence, Turing proposed a simple and apparently straightforward way to assess whether computers could actually think. Since defining “thinking” is tricky–because immediately we find ourselves grappling with questions about the nature of consciousness or intelligence–Turing suggested that we skip all of the deeper philosophical questions with an empirical test: if a human interviewer was to receive written answers to questions posed to two entities hidden from view, a computer and a person, would it be possible for the computer to “trick” the interviewer into believing that it was the human? If so, if the computer was able to convince someone that it is capable of doing what we (thinking people) do, then, Turing said, we can say that machines can think.  Thrilled by the challenge of creating thinking machines, the artificial intelligence (AI) geniuses were off and running after the allure of creating the androids who some see as our techno-evolution (robo sapiens who might end up in some sort of cyborg marriage with homo sapiens).

But my immediate (and ongoing) response to Turing’s assessment of thinking was: Huh? It seemed such an odd way to come at the question, because it bypassed the foundation of our capacity to think, the fact that thinking entails the subjective, interior dimension of our experience that is conscious. Those were inconsequential to Turing. However, philosopher John Searle similarly questioned Turing’s assumptions when he argued that the Turing test didn’t prove that computers could think. The computer is programmed to manipulate symbols to produce words or sentences that it doesn’t understand, he said, and real thinking demands understanding–which is a subjective, conscious experience.

The reason that the Turing test has stuck in my mind (or should I say brain? :-) ) all these years doesn’t have to do with the desire to prove it wrong or inadequate. It has more to do with my perplexity that Turing could think this way to begin with. It’s like the classic philosophical question of other minds: how do we know that other human beings have the same kinds of inner, subjective conscious experiences that we do? We can’t see inside another’s mind, we can only see how someone behaves, so how do we know? Dennett and Hofstadter’s book went into that terrain also–leading to the conclusion that we actually have no idea and that there is no real way of knowing. What emerges through their inquiry is the sense of an extremely alienated narcissism: “All I know is what I experience, and I have no idea where that comes from.” (Which gets awfully close to the solipsism of not being able to tell if anything is real outside of one’s own perception.) Whenever I read the work of almost any of these thinkers (oh, how do I know that they are thinking?), I experience a strange kind of flatness and impenetrability in their work. I don’t mean that I don’t understand it: the logic may be selective but it is impeccable on its own terms. I mean that there is almost a stubborn lack of any recognition of interiority at all. As if the world begins and ends with what one can observe outside of any inner space that we call “I” or “my” or any conscious sense of shared intersubjectivity experienced as “we” or “our.” (Despite the fact that we share a language through which we communicate, which is a feat impossible were we not deeply interconnected through systems of shared meaning…but nevermind that for now.)

Lately, I’ve been reading a fascinating new book entitled Postsecularism by Mike King, a London artist, engineer, graphic designer, and philosopher, that sheds an interesting light on this entire issue. He’s coined the phrase “cultural autism” to describe the “societal move to posit life and self as mechanism” or “the mood of a science-enthralled world.” This is the world of scientific materialism in which all that is is reduced to some form of mechanical process. As he explains:

“Cultural autism” [is] a stance in the modern mind which doesn’t notice emotional impairment, or dissonant or inappropriate feeling-responses to events. “Cultural autism” does not imply actual autism…. Instead it is a stance that doesn’t notice alienation; indeed, it provides much cultural support for strategic behavior likely to increase alienation rather than decrease it. … A key component of this cultural ambience is scientism, the broad philosophy which eliminates vertical time, eliminates the irruption of the eternal, and confines us to the “domain of the exceptionless natural law”.

King’s term hit home for me. The autistic person cannot “read” feeling or subjectivity–one’s own or others. There is a blankness there, an incomprehension. It does not compute–literally! King notes that those in the grips of cultural autism, such as the new atheists (Dawkins, Dennett et al.), are tone deaf to the deeper dimensions of human experience, especially to those that we call spiritual.

Perhaps it is only a context of cultural autism  that would give rise to a self that would contemplate creating a machine in its own image–or the image of one’s perfect mate (there are a LOT of saucy fembots under construction). No doubt, creating artificial life is a bold and daring undertaking that pushes the envelope of the possible. And that is a uniquely human motivation. However, isn’t it interesting that when confronted with these hybrids of technology and imagination, we wonder about their subjective experience? What would happen if Commander Data on Star Trek had feelings? Will David, the robot boy in Spielberg’s AI, find the love he’s programmed for? Even the creators of the perfect woman want her to be able to love and care for her, um, owner. We seem to be saying that if they were able to feel, to have conscious subjective experience, then somehow they would count as real.

Which brings me back to Turing, who might have answered the question of whether androids can feel as he did the question of whether they can think: if they respond in a way that is humanly appropriate, then isn’t that sufficient? In the world of cultural autism, the answer may be yes–because the self is so “buffered” (to use a term King takes from philosopher Charles Taylor) in its own mind bubble that it is alienated from the simple sense of  Beingness that is the often unconscious ground of our existence and relatedness. It’s that dimension of life that extreme secularists are blind and deaf to, King argues. As our culture shakes the dust of religious dogma from the depth dimension that grounds everything and moves into the postsecular stage that King writes about, will androids with simulated responses feel real enough?

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered to Alan Turing, who it turns out, may very well have been autistic. King mentions offhandedly in his book that there is considerable evidence that Turing had some form of autism, possibly Asberger’s syndrome. While King’s point about cultural autism, as he says above, is not about any individual being diagnosed with this disorder, it’s interesting to contemplate how autism enabled Turing to engage with such compulsive focus to achieve so much in his stellar career–and tragically short life. Perhaps if Turing himself hadn’t been limited in his capacity to communicate and connect with other human beings, he wouldn’t even thought it possible or worthwhile to develop the computer intelligence that, ironically, has transformed our sense of interrelatedness.

In the end, that’s what is so remarkable: that this cultural autism that has mistakenly conflated man and machine has given rise to a networked world of instant connection. The human desire for interrelatedness–even by creating copies of ourselves in silicone and nanotubes–is so astoundingly incessant that even when walled in by cultural autism we strive to meet, connect, and communicate. And perhaps more astonishing, over time, those fiber optic networks, the entire digital apparatus bouncing sigmals back and forth from green earth to silver satellite, become warmed by the particularly human touch that extends itself into and through the circuits and cables to create a twittering world of instant messages from friends in the furthest (my)spaces.

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Filed Under: AtheismConsciousnessCultureEnlightenNext Editors’ BlogMaterialismPhilosophyPop CultureReligionScienceSpiritualityTechnologyUncategorized

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About the Author

Elizabeth Debold is a Senior Editor for EnlightenNext magazine. Follow her on Twitter @EvolveWomen.

Comments (4)

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  2. Axel Malik says:

    Great – this is very good observation, and an excellent interpretation of a strong underlying structure in thinking, which sells itself as state of art. One is often confronted with this kind of logic, that only appears 100 % logical, but is in fact an autistic loop. Great that you point your finger on that kind of “outstanding” approaches.

  3. gillian ross says:

    Brilliant Elizabeth. Couldn’t agree more and beautifully expressed. ( I am instantly going to order Mike King’s book). I had similar difficulties with Ray Kurzweil’s The age of Spiritual Machines. It really annoyed me in totally missing the point about what it truly means to be human. And as for the ‘new atheists’……!
    Thanks for all your good work at EnlightenNext.

  4. MrTeacup says:

    Interesting post, Elizabeth. A few minor quibbles:

    The Turing Test sounds weird, but that way of thinking about things is pretty common in computing theory. If you want to replicate a high-level phenomenon, it’s not necessary to recreate the exact structure it depends on/emerges out of. That’s what leads computer science types to think that a “living” thing could exist in a computer – why restrict living to just things that exist in the physical world, couldn’t a different, virtual platform also sustain life? Or a very basic example: different web browsers work completely differently inside, but the websites all look the same.

    And this leads me to my first quibble: it seems that you are treating “Science” and “scientific thinking” in a pretty monolithic way, applying the usual critique of physicalist reductionism from the physics community which says that matter is fundamental, to the reductionism of computer sciences, which claims that information is fundamental. But I do think you are right that there is a reductionism at work here, and as I’m sure everyone is aware, the reductionism of science has been historically balanced or countered by various types of Romantic philosophy that celebrated subjectivity.

    And this leads me to my second quibble: you seem to be laying responsibility for the culture of narcissism that we find in the modern West at the feet of “Science”. But as you point out, the buffered self is obsessed with it’s own interiority, subjectivity, which modern science finds no place for, treating it as an irrelevant side effect of the main event: matter or information. (Is there not some common ground here with some forms of Eastern spirituality? The self, the ego is impermanent, its productions are illusions and the source of suffering and ultimately irrelevant).

    It seems to me that the scientific account of (mental or physical) phenomena is so esoteric and out-of-reach for ordinary people, and when it is understood, so counter-intuitive, that those ideas have virtually no impact on the culture at all. The historical conflict between Romantic subjectivity vs. scientific materialism has been dissolved because science has virtually disappeared from the field for everyone except philosophers and academics.

    In the hearts and minds of most ordinary people, in the world of pop culture and psychology, the Romantic embrace & celebration of subjectivity is simply taken for granted, and that, I claim, is what has led to the culture of consumerism and narcissism.