In the 1950s, British computing pioneer Alan Turing posed a challenge for machines of the future: to pass the Turing Test, they would have to mimic human conversation so well that observers would be fooled into believing the computers were indeed human.
That has not been an easy task. Today’s NY Times has an article on a recently-staged demonstration pitting an Israeli debating champion against a computer. The program, called the IBM Debater, is the culmination of artificial intelligence research intended to increase machines’ understanding of natural language. It consists of many systems designed and built separately, each working on a different part of creating a coherent argument.
As an example, the IBM Debater, arguing in favor of government subsidies for space exploration, responds, “Another point that I believe my opponent made is that there are more important things than space exploration to spend money on. It is very easy to say there are more important things to spend money on, and I dispute this. No one is claiming that this is the only item on our expense list.” The Debater goes on to say that space exploration “is more important than good roads or improved schools or better health care.”
Okay, IBM Debater, you win! Not really: your multiple systems have interpreted your opponent’s statements, generated a counter-statement and tied that (somewhat) to a larger context. But simply disputing your opponent’s opinion doesn’t make it wrong, and your own argument fails to convince: why is space exploration more important than roads, schools or health care? There is no logic involved in just saying so. Equally important, the IBM Debater, being a machine after all, is unable to understand or connect with the core values held by its audience. It’s not believably human.
The failure to address an issue logically, and with consideration for human values, reminds me of just about every utterance coming out of the White House and its representatives. Nothing said by Sarah Huckabee Sanders ever seems to fully answer questions from the Press Corps; she constantly deflects these questions by blaming the Democrats (just like her boss), or giving misleading answers (ditto), or responding in the following manner (not an actual quote, but the essence of her style):
Q: How can the President claim there are “fine people” in a KKK march, and when a peaceful demonstrator is murdered by a white supremacist, state there is “blame on both sides?”
A: The President can’t afford to get bogged down in the fine details of any one incident. Instead, he is focused on his goal of rebuilding America, a great nation with tolerance and justice for all.”
Yes, but (the first two words in my mind following any White House statement)…
Of course our Chaos President is pulling her strings; deflecting comes from the very top, and lying is his modus operandi. On the hot topic of immigration and Jeff Sessions’ zero-tolerance policy resulting in the separation of families at the southern border, Trump has repeatedly shifted responsibility to the minority Democrats, when it was his Attorney General who initiated the practice, and Trump himself could immediately end the policy with his saw-tooth signature. But instead of that, he points to Germany’s “skyrocketing” crime rate– due, he says, to a flood of immigrants– when immigration there has actually slowed considerably, and crime in Germany has decreased to its lowest level in 25 years. What do truth and responsibility matter, when your actions have already triggered moral outrage on all sides?
Taking screaming kids out of the arms of their desperate parents is horrifying to anyone with compassion. The practice is compared to child abuse and torture, and has been called cruel, evil and inhumane by all sectors of American society. Immigration is a highly complex issue with a long history, and yet the stone-faced Stephen Miller sweeps away all complexity and context with his Orwellian statement: “There is no straying from that mission.” Typically, he repaints the gray as polarizing black-and-white, pointing out that 90% of Americans are in favor of protecting the border.
Yes, but… how does that specifically justify tearing families apart? Kirstjen Nielsen, head of Homeland Security, first tweeted, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” Then, as coached by her boss, she blamed this nonexistent policy on the Democrats. Then, finally admitting that families are being separated, she claimed the children are well cared for: they have meals, education, medical care, TV. High standards indeed, but Kirstjen: traumatized children crying for their parents while waiting in cages built of chain-link fencing are, by definition, not well cared for. When faced with photos of these cages and ProPublica’s audio recording of children wailing, then asked by a journalist whether she believes the effect of this policy is moral, ethical and American, she answered, “What I believe is we should exercise our democratic rights as Americans and fix the problem. It’s a problem and let’s fix it. Yes.”
According to tech industry reports, current AI technology allows machines to participate in meaningful debate only about 40% of the time, but the numbers are gradually improving. I would hold that 40% success rate in stark contrast with the bilge this White House puts out every single day. If one hopes for “human” (not only in conversation, but also in policy and action), the inhumane, illogical, dishonest and incoherent people of the Trump Administration will never fool us into believing they are human– they have no hope of passing the Turing Test.