Chapter 83: The Imitation Game

'SHODAN' by Pascal (Flickr)
‘SHODAN’ by Pascal (Flickr)

Dear Diary,

I love movies.  I always have.

In the 1800s, if you wanted a combination of drama, music, choreography, visual design, you name it… it was to Opera you would go.  In the early 2000s, as with the 1900s, it’s still Cinema.

It’s still an extraordinarily powerful and concise way of communicating ideas and feelings.  And more than that, of exploring what it is to be human.

But I saw an interesting film not too long ago which explored what it was like to not be human.  The character doing the exploring was Alan Turing, and the film was The Imitation Game.

The-Imitation-Game-Final-Poster

The title of the film refers to a paper that Turing wrote about his thoughts on artificial intelligence.  Starting with the question ‘Can machines think?’ he concluded that the words ‘machines’ and ‘think’ were too ambiguous, and so to answer it he devised a standard test.  The famous ‘Turing test’.

The test explores that fascinating question: at what point does Artificial Intelligence stop being ‘artificial’?  At what point does it become so advanced that it just becomes ‘intelligence’?

The principle of the Turing test was that — to grossly simplify it for a moment — if you could have a conversation with artificial intelligence, and you couldn’t tell the difference between it and a human mind, then basically it is a machine that thinks.

Could such an intelligence exist?  In theory, of course.

Will we ever see it in our lifetimes?

Well, until today, I think I would have said no.

It was watching another movie, Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, that made me realise that we might be a lot closer to true artificial intelligence than we realise.

Interstellar

The history of computing is very young.  There are many people alive now that are older than the first microchip.  But the personal computer, and the ‘Turing machine’ that inspired it, just computes numbers; it doesn’t try to express thoughts or feelings.

Then came the internet.  And some have suggested that the internet is already a form of artificial intelligence: like a gigantic brain of its own, with each user a firing synapse.  But that’s just a metaphor, it’s actually just a collection of human intelligence.

But watching the film Interstellar made me realise that of course, even though I’d never thought of it in those terms before, there does exist… what I can only call a humanoid robot.

A form of artificial intelligence that is not quite capable of passing the Turing test but is very very close.

It can convincingly create language.  It can even convincingly create philosophy.  It can theorise about abstract concepts far beyond the reach of the human mind.

And it even has a grasp of human emotions: love, fear, friendship, betrayal.  It doesn’t yet understand them enough to be able to express them in any coherent way — as yet, it only understands them in the most broad strokes — but I believe, year on year, its understanding of these concepts is getting greater and greater.

And there may come a point when I can’t even tell it apart from a real, living, feeling human.

True, at the moment its function is only really to unravel abstract concepts like space, time, consciousness and reality, and when it tries to reproduce human emotions the result is obviously just the product of a lot of very complicated algorithms.

But this robot is learning.  It has self awareness.  It knows that it is on a mission.  It knows that it is important.

And this robot has a name.

And its name… is Christopher Nolan.

And when the technology becomes so advanced that I can watch a Christopher Nolan film and believe that it was made by a human instead of by an incredibly sophisticated robot… who knows what will be possible.

(Snarky snerk, and vice versa.)

(P.S.  I still think Memento is awesome though.)