The Turing Test and Animal Language

In the first paragraph of his famous paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Alan Turing states the following:

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?” This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms “machine” and “think.” The definitions might be framed so as to reflect so far as possible the normal use of the words, but this attitude is dangerous. If the meaning of the words” machine” and “think” are to be found by examining how they are commonly used it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the meaning and the answer to the question, “Can machines think?” is to be sought in a statistical survey such as a Gallup poll. But this is absurd. Instead of attempting such a definition I shall replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words.

The new form of the question can be described in terms of a game which we call “the imitation game.”

I quote the full paragraph plus the first sentence of the second paragraph because it is necessary to follow his reasoning in order to determine what the famous “Turing test” actually demonstrates.  Turing engages in a bit of sleight of hand by 1) acknowledging that he cannot answer the question “Can machines think?” because he cannot define what it is to “think.” [Later in the paper he states, “The original question ‘Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.”]  So 2) He proposes a different question, essentially, can a machine be programmed to fool a human interrogator into believing that he is communicating with another human rather than a machine, that is, in Turing’s words, can it imitate thought?  The answer to this question is yes.  And that would be fine if it were the end of the matter.  But 3) Turing then takes the answer to the second question and 4) substitutes it as the answer to the first question.  In my view, this is not a legitimate strategy; I have never come across a discussion of argumentation or logic that permits one to evade a supposedly unanswerable question by answering a different one, nor as a teacher would I have ever accepted such an evasion on an exam.

What Turing refers to as an imitation game cannot show that machines can think for two reasons:  One is that the machine is deliberately programmed to produce the imitative impression, and the program is written by humans (who do think).  The second is that the interrogator (a human) projects meaning into the banal answers of the machine—that is, the meaning comes from the interrogator, not from the machine, and furthermore, the machine is not responding to the meaning of the interrogator’s input but is rather responding to the dictates (the algorithms) of its program.  It therefore appears to me that the Turing test is no test at all, other than of the gullibility of its fans.

This effect is an illusion of communication, and it is not merely the result of metaphorical slippage (i.e., the process by which a word is borrowed from one context to express an idea in another but takes along so much of its original meaning that in its new setting it confuses rather than clarifies—such as happens when we say that computers in a network communicate with each other, which tends to evoke images of talking to each other [also a commonly used metaphor] rather than of electrical signals [again a metaphor!] flowing from one computer to another).  It is also the result of a common, virtually universal, trait of the human mind, the tendency to personify and/or anthropomorphize nonhuman things.  I might even say our ability to do so, as it is hard to imagine what human thought and culture would be like without this tendency (i.e., the imagination). 

The illusion of communication can be seen in children who imbue their toys, especially dolls and stuffed animals, with personalities and engage in private conversations with them.  It can be seen in animal fables of all cultures, and certainly in more sophisticated cultural expressions such as poetry and novels (e.g., the pathetic fallacy; Tolkien’s talking trees, etc.).  In can be seen in religions, in which natural phenomena and objects are imputed with human motives.  It can be seen in trivial actions, such as in a man impulsively calling his malfunctioning cell phone or automobile a “Stupid thing!”  It can be seen in the behavior of severe hoarders.  Yet the illusion of communication is nothing more than an illusion and therefore does not prove that animals, rocks, or cell phones actually communicate or that they are intelligent enough to do so.  Likewise, that a human interrogator would likely be fooled into believing that a machine can think because it convincingly imitates communication, does not show that machines can think nor even that they can communicate in the usual sense of the word.  Belief does not equal truth.

The illusion of communication suggests we should be skeptical towards claims that animals such as apes and parrots are capable of being taught human language.  If these animals can imitate language without actually being able to understand it, their human “interrogators” can be convinced that they are communicating, particularly in an intelligent or human way, when in fact they are not.  Here Turing can be of some assistance:  In describing what kinds of questions could legitimately be posed to a computer in an imitation game, he states, “We are of course supposing for the present that the questions are of the kind in which an answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No” is appropriate, rather than questions such as ‘What do you think of Picasso?’  The questions that we know the machines must fail on are of this type.”  The questions that animals must fail on are also of this type. This is not to say that animals do not think at all, nor that they are incapable of communicating.  Anyone who has been around animals for any length of time and has any sympathy with them at all knows that they can think and communicate, on their own terms.  Skilled trainers do not try to bring animals up to human standards of thought and language, but instead work with the animals according to their real capabilities.


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