The Imitation Game is a bad film. Biopics are generally awful and this is a particularly bad example of it. Will Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) succeed in making the computer that he’s famous for making? Spoilers: yes.
There’s nothing particularly new in this paragraph. Films shouldn’t justify smart people being jackholes. We’re all sick of it. Just because you’re brilliant doesn’t mean that you’re correct. Just because you’re brilliant doesn’t excuse you from basic manners and common courtesies. Yes, there’s a place in using that brilliance to critique (/play) with social conventions, but films shouldn’t present it as an expectation that clever people are exempt from good behaviour protocols.
Once again, we have a film where the State can’t understand the particular brilliance of the Individual who is, despite all the best evidence, wrong and absorbing cash for fantastically bad ideas. Apparently, Benedict is such a brilliant and amazing genius that he can’t explain why he needs taxpayer-funded cashola. Boohoohoo. It’s so hard to be this clever.
In full Matrix-style pseudo-intellectualism, some astonishingly stupid ideas are presented in the most patronisingly terrible ways. This gets us to Alan Turing’s most famously wrong idea:
Suppose that we have a person, a machine, and an interrogator. The interrogator is in a room separated from the other person and the machine. The object of the game is for the interrogator to determine which of the other two is the person, and which is the machine. The interrogator knows the other person and the machine by the labels ‘X’ and ‘Y’—but, at least at the beginning of the game, does not know which of the other person and the machine is ‘X’—and at the end of the game says either ‘X is the person and Y is the machine’ or ‘Xis the machine and Y is the person’. The interrogator is allowed to put questions to the person and the machine of the following kind: “Will X please tell me whether X plays chess?” Whichever of the machine and the other person is X must answer questions that are addressed to X. The object of the machine is to try to cause the interrogator to mistakenly conclude that the machine is the other person; the object of the other person is to try to help the interrogator to correctly identify the machine.
The question for us is whether or not this is a test for ‘thought’. The film version of Alan Turing thinks that it is. The fact that people have different preferences is indicative of ‘different ways thought occurs’.
Intuitively, we know something is suspect about the Turing Test. Instead of the property ‘is thinking’, consider the property ‘is a cat’. We run the Turing Test again. A cat is put in a room with a robot simulacrum of a cat with a ‘judge’. If the judge cannot spot the difference between the cat and the robot cat, then we have proven that robots can be cats… which is weird.
But we can interrogate this rebuttal one step further. When we began thinking about the property ‘is a cat’, we might not have really been interrogating the actuality of being a cat, but instead were examining cathood which is a concept that could apply to non-cats. This isn’t a weird thing to think: this ‘cathood’ applies fairly commonly to non-cats, such as ‘marsupial cats’ (which aren’t cats), fictional cats (such as the Cheshire Cat), and the terrifying deviants in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.
Fortunately, there’s a response to the rebuttal: complete agreement! Yes, we can understand things that denote properties in perception that not might be actually things in themselves. Things can have ‘cathood’ without being cats, and nobody disagrees that things can appear to be thinking, but the relevant criteria for having some property in yourself is not that you are perceived to have that property by a third party (unless the property is one that only exists in perception — like ‘handsome’).
Film-Turing might have outlined his test in a patronising voice, but that just made him patronising and incorrect. We can imagine the police officer there to be a judge, incapable of spotting the difference between what Film-Turing was babbling about and accurate statements. That’s how advanced our capacity to say incorrect things in a patronising way has become: to a third-party judge, they look like intelligent statements.
Which gets me to my favourite subject: why scientists can be replaced by computers. Turing’s argument, boiled down, is that thought exists in expression: if I can express ‘ideas’ to somebody else, I can be said to be thinking. The philosopher John Searle asked us to imagine a room:
Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
Searle here links the idea of ‘thinking’ with ‘understanding’. A symbol processor (‘If X, then Y’) is not really able to think, no matter how quickly it performs the calculation or the unpredictability of the calculation.
All of science is mere symbol processing. Here’s the data, apply the method, there’s the output. The only difficult part is explaining the meaning of the data — the interpretation of the data. But that communication is more of a humanities endeavour and not proper science. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that, within a few generations, we will have computers that replace laboratories. Having a computer run experiments is far more efficient than hiring a bunch of postdocs (and there’s a salary saving as well).
Meanwhile, over in law, philosophy, and the humanities, there is the problem of understanding. What does all this mental content mean?
Science is Turing-level thought and therefore computable; humanities is Searle-level thought and therefore isn’t.
The Imitation Game was a bad film. Scientists probably liked it.