Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Codebreaker (2011)

     Codebreaker (2011) [D: Clare Beavan and Nic Stacey. Ed Stoppard, Henry Goodman, and contemporaries and family of Turing] Short documentary about Alan Turing, about his work as code breaker at Bletchley Park, his seminal papers on computing, and his conviction for gross indecency and his eventual suicide. He was sentenced to receive stilboestrol, a synthetic oestrogen, which among other things messes up the brain. The title is ambiguous: Turing broke two codes.
     Alternating between voice-over narration of Turing’s life and dramatised sessions with Franz Gr├╝nbaum, the psychiatrist who treated Turing (and who became his friend), the film is an effective indictment of the attitudes that destroyed one of the most brilliant minds we’ve been privileged to know. We are somewhat less benighted now, but there are discouraging signs of increasing acceptance of hostility towards those who depart too far from current norms. It’s depressing to watch a story about the destruction of human being.
     The movie reminded me of how the Turing Test has evolved over time. For a while, I participated in a newsgroup about artificial intelligence. We ascribe awareness, self-awareness, personality, etc, because of the  behaviours of our fellow creatures. Sometimes, we go too far: I don’t think a snail is aware of pain, even though it recoils from flame. But it is certainly capable of learning, if by that we mean changes in behaviour that depend on the history of the individual. Since learning is an essential component of intelligence, the snail has some degree of intelligence. And since we see intelligence of varying complexity in many different creatures, it’s no stretch at all to expect that machines will exhibit intelligence. It’s when we conflate intelligence with self-awareness, with consciousness, that we get into trouble. More precisely, “intelligence” as a cognitive trait is far too stretchy a term. For many people, it includes creativity, for example. For many others, it requires not only problem solving, but also awareness that one is solving a problem. And so on.
     Recently, I came across a fact I’d ignored, and a comment that reframes Turing’s Test.
     The fact is that Turing machines are incredibly inefficient compared to brains. We can compute “that’s Uncle Fred, and he’s happy” in a fraction of a second expending a few joules of energy. A machine needs longer and expends many kilojoules of energy to compute that “That’s Uncle Fred”, and it can’t (yet) compute that he’s happy.
     The comment is that the Turing Test is really about humans, not machines. It tests whether the human can be fooled by a machine. And since the program is devised by a human, it really tests whether one human can fool another one. But we already knew that.
     It’s mark of Turing’s gift to us that even as we mourn him, we want to think about the things that mattered to him. ***

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