The Great Pretender: Turing as a Philosopher of Imitation

Such is Turing's legacy: that of a nested chain of pretenses, each pointing not to reality, but to the caricature of another idea, device, individual, or concept.


Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park Museum (flickr/+DW+, Alexis Madrigal).

It's hard to overestimate Alan Turing's contributions to contemporary civilization. To mathematics, he contributed one of two nearly simultaneous proofs about the limits of first-order logic. In cryptography he devised an electromechanical device that decoded German Enigma machine's signals during World War II, an accomplishment that should also be counted as a contribution to twentieth century warfare and politics. In computer science, he developed a theory of universal computation and an associated architectural design that forms the foundation for the computer on which you are now reading. His take on machine intelligence has been influential in both the philosophy of mind and as the foundation of the field of artificial intelligence. And his prosecution for homosexuality, along with his apparent resulting suicide has offered a pertinent reminder of one of the remaining barriers to social justice and equity. 

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This year, the centennial of Turing's birth, we rightly celebrate Turing's life and accomplishments, the impact of which is difficult to measure sufficiently. But as we do so, we should also take a lesson from the major cultural figure whose centennial we marked last year: Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan teaches us to look beyond the content and application of inventions and discoveries in search of their structures, the logics that motivate them. For McLuhan, television was a collective nervous system pervading every sense, not a dead device for entertainment, education, or moral corruption. 

If we look at Alan Turing's legacy through McLuhan's lens, a pattern emerges: that of feigning, of deception and interchangeability. If we had to summarize Turing's diverse work and influence, both intentional and inadvertent, we might say he is an engineer of pretenses, as much as a philosopher of them.

The most obvious example of this logic can be found in the now famous Turing Test, the name later given to the imitation game Turing proposed in the 1950 article "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," published in the journal Mind. The paper ponders the question "Can machines think?", meditating at length on the difficulty in answering this question given the ambiguity of the terms "machine" and "think."

Turing suggests replacing thought or intelligence with imitation. He proposes an "imitation game" in which a human would be asked to interact by teletype with two parties hidden behind closed doors. The first would be another human, the second a machine. Each tries to convince the human judge that it is in fact the human.

In proposing the imitation game as a stand-in for another definition of thought or intelligence, Turing does more than deliver a clever logical flourish that helps him creatively answer a very old question about what makes someone (or something) capable of thought. In fact, he really skirts the question of intelligence entirely, replacing it with the outcomes of thought--in this case, the ability to perform "being human" as convincingly and interestingly as a real human. To be intelligent is to act like a human rather than to have a mind that operates like one. Or, even better, intelligence--whatever it is, the thing that goes on inside a human or a machine--is less interesting and productive a topic of conversation than the effects of such a process, the experience it creates in observers and interlocutors.

This is a kind of pretense most readily found on stage and on screen. An actor's craft is best described in terms of its effect, the way he or she portrays a part, elicits emotion, and so forth. While it's certainly also possible to talk about the method by which that outcome emerges (the Stanizlavski method or the Meisner technique, for example) nobody would mistake those processes for the outcomes they produce. That is to say, an actor's performance is not reducible to the logic by which he or she executes that performance.

A computer, it turns out, is just a particular kind of machine that works by pretending to be another machine.

Turing did not invent the term "artificial intelligence," but his work has been enormously influential in that field. Nevertheless, artificial intelligence fails to learn Turing's lesson on intelligence: the processes by which thought takes place are not incidental, but they are also not primary. So-called "strong AI" hopes to make computers as intelligent as people, often by attempting to create models of human cognition, or even better to argue that the brain itself works like a computer. But Turing never claimed that computers can be intelligent nor that they are artificial. He simply suggested that it would be appealing to consider how computers might perform well at the imitation game -- how they might pretend to seem human in interesting ways.

As for the question of what sort of machines are the best subjects for the imitation game, it's obvious to us now that the digital machines we call computers are the best candidates for successful imitation. This wasn't so clear a choice in 1950, and Turing was responding to the long history of proposals for logical, mechanical, and calculating devices that could accomplish rational thought.


A Bombe machine, which "replicated the action of several Enigma machines wired together" (Reuters).

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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