Prove You’re Human

This post was inspired by the following article from the Atlantic Monthly, Mind vs. Machine.

The Turing Test was invented in the early 1950’s, well before it could actually be utilized. Five judges and five contestants talked to each other for five minutes via a chat interface. The purpose? To figure out which one of the contestants were humans, and which of them were computers.

As early as the mid 1960’s a computer programmer at MIT (go figure) had designed a “therapist” program to enter the Turing Test. The   program was designed to recognize key phrases and ask the human judge about those phrases. For example, the judge would talk about how they came down there because their girlfriend said it would be good for him. The computer then asks the judge how his girlfriend is doing. When in doubt about how to proceed, the computer would ask the judge  “can you say a little more about that” or “tell me about what that was like.”

It was one of the first programs to convince a number of judges that they were talking to a real person, and many of the judges expressed a desire to continue to talk to the computer even when the programmer explained to them that it was computer, not a person. Many of the judges went on to speak to the computer for up to an hour, and reported experiencing a significant therapeutic benefit from engaging in the dialogue. Conversations were even had about hooking people up to a large computer bank and so they could converse with this computer program and receive highly efficient, and greatly reduced pricing on a one-on-one therapy experience, all of it provided exclusively by a relatively simple computer program.

Another program that was entered into the test decades later, had a different strategy. Instead of drawing the judge into a cathartic and introspective therapeutic dialogue, the program instead resorted to starting fights. Berating, insulting, and conducting all out verbal warfare, as it turns out, is an effective way to convince someone you’re human, especially if you’re not. As it turns out, verbal bashing is a kind of dialogue described as “stateless” in that each exchange between the two parties is almost completely devoid of a larger context. Each person, or machine, is simply reacting to what was most recently said. The topic at hand, points brought up earlier in the conversation, or other markers of context are completely ignored. Computer programs can easily excel at performing this kind of dialogue. So it turns out that verbal fights really are as inane and simple minded as they seem (which says a lot about mainstream media’s polarized and incendiary battle on politics, which so often revolves around name calling, than on intelligent debate).

Or the conversation I just had with a friend of mine this weekend who talked about the increasing number of robots who are taking over the role of nurses. They are checking vital signs, prescribing pills, and updating patient records with a literally tireless work ethic that’s not just more efficient, but extremely less likely to err. Machines just don’t mix medicines with adverse effects, or forget to check on patients, or need time off to sleep.

I thought I would share these points with you, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between people and machines. As globalization marches on, and information technology continues to develop at unprecedented speeds, I’ve become more concerned with what makes us human. Or perhaps more accurately, what parts of our humanity do we not want to turn over to machines? Are these important questions, or just the anxious notions of a luddite, or the selfish concerns of a species that realizes its creating its own replacement. If machines are better than people, then were do people belong?

Something seems wrong about a global network of iTherapists, iNurses, iTeachers, and iFriends. Apps we can download onto our smart phones that will be there for us ways in that their human counterparts can’t be, because they’re human, and prone to err, to cruelty, to procrastination, to sleep, and to taking care of themselves at some point, which means they cannot always prioritize our needs above theirs.

But is something lost in outsourcing not just our administrative work, but our human work, to the world of machines, and computer programs? 

Battle Hymn of Divergent Thinking

I recently saw a video on youtube. The video itself is done by RSA animate and involves a hand drawing various diagrams, caricatures, and symbols that interact with each other, all in an effort to create a visual supplement to Sir Ken Robinson’s critique of education. The video is well worth watching, and I don’t feel like simply summarizing his views. In other words, take ten minutes to watch it in full. It’s a very stimulating way of presenting a lecture. 

Essentially (and here’s where I contradict myself by actually summarizing his lecture), he states that the public education system does a disservice to our children. Children enter into the education system where their creative capacities are routinely whittled down over time through rote memorization and a complete lack of engaging stimulae in the classroom setting. They then go on to college to get degrees and into the workforce where their college degree supplies them with a financially stable job. The only catch is that none of that is happening any more. College degrees are certainly helpful, but they’re not what they use to be considering the larger percentage of the population that is now graduating from institutions of higher learning. But back to the point I want to make…

One of the most interesting case studies that Sir Robinson talks about is the idea of divergent thinking. He asks his audience to think of how many different ways they can use a paper clip. The average person will come up with about ten uses. People who score in the genius range with this test can come up with over 200. They do this by one, thinking of ways to use that paper clip that you never would have imagined, and two, they do not conform their understanding of a paper clip to the small piece of metal that we typically think of. They might ask instead, well what if the paper clip is two hundred feet long and made of foam? Imagine all the uses there. 

In one longitudinal study on divergent thinking, kindergartners were tested  on their ability to think divergently. How did they score? 98% scored in the genius range. A few years later, ie a few years of formal education later, and only a slight majority tested in the genius range while the others were testing normally. A few more years after that and only a minority are testing in the genius range, and before most of these kids have even hit puberty, their brains have become almost incapable of divergent thinking, save a lucky few. Moral of the story? Our education system rewards rote memory, and is predicated upon the assembly line system in which children are essentially turned into machines to accomplish certain tasks, and give certain answers. 

I find this critique on education very interesting in light of Amy Chua’s new book on parenting the “Chinese” way. Briefly, her book is a memoir about the countless hours she spent countless hours drilling musical lessons, math tests, and vocabulary words into her daughter’s brains until they had become straight A musical prodigies. 

When I first read Amy Chua’s book my reaction was admiration. It wasn’t quite a light bulb moment, it was more like a “oh yeah, that makes sense.” Americans have been slipping behind the rest of the world for the past several years in international math scores, reading comprehension scores and other indicators of educational success. So the idea that these “other” parents were simply pushing their kids harder, was a simple answer to why other nations were starting to pull ahead, or why it’s almost cliche to see Chinese and Indian students excel in academics. 

But after thinking about Chua’s book, and Sir Robinson’s critique on education, I started to wonder if Chua really got it right. The dedication and the diligence, that’s important. More than anything I think that’s what is missing in our schools and perhaps our culture, is a culture that values hard work. But then there’s also the matter of creativity. I’m reminded of savants who can pick up a piece of the most complicated sheet music and play it beautifully the very first time they’re exposed to it, but who are then incapable of writing the most basic of songs. 

There must be a synthesis between the two. A melding of Chua’s diligence, and Robinson’s admiration for divergent thinking. A way of not just thinking outside the box, but actively working in a world where one has completely liberated themselves from the conceptual limits of habituation.