Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Turing Test and Prejudice

Yesterday, I blogged about how I believed that Alan Turing deserves an apology for the way he was treated. A few people asked how we should apologize. Here's what I would say.


I am sorry for the way you were treated. I am sorry that Britain treated a man of your genius, a hero of the Second World War, so despicably.

You laid the foundations of computer science, you helped break the Nazi Enigma code, and you were cut down in your prime because of prejudice. In your death we lost a great man who no doubt had much more to offer the world.

In 1950 you published a paper in which you proposed a way to determine if a machine was intelligent or not. This has become known as the Turing Test, and it has wider implications that just machine intelligence.

Your test involved asking a person to distinguish between a human intelligence and a machine intelligence by removing prejudice. You limit the judge to communicating with the human and machine via an intermediary (you proposed a teleprinter) so that the judge is unable to see or hear who they are communicating with. The judge is limited to judging intelligence alone. If the judge cannot tell the difference then the machine is deemed intelligent.

But replace the machine in your test with another human with some supposedly undesirable characteristic. Your test can pit a straight man against a gay man, a white man against black man, a man against a woman. I imagine if you and I were hidden behind the teleprinters, that you would be determined to be more intelligent.

Without the prejudice of knowing your sexuality, skin colour or sex, only your true values come through in the Turing Test.

At the end of that paper you write "We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done." You took your own life four years later, after being prosecuted for homosexuality. I cannot fathom how much we lost when we lost you.

I am sorry that these things happened to you. But you may ask me, "What good is being sorry?"

An apology is really an atonement for the past, wrapped around a promise for the future. My promise (and I know there are others who will agree with me) is that we won't let prejudice prevent us from applying our own Turing Test to the people we deal with.

You may also ask me whether I write this because of an agenda. Because I want to take your death and use it to promote gay-rights, to hold you up as an example of how prejudice against gays harms the world.

I would be lying to you if I didn't tell you that I am personally uncomfortable with the implications of the acceptance of homosexuality. I suffer great internal conflict about questions such as "Should gay couples be allowed to have or adopt children?". I cannot overcome these feelings because they are grounded in an upbringing and they are in conflict with rationality and my own experiences.

But I see clearly that my feelings conflict with a simple truth: if I allow irrational opinions to guide my actions I lose my way. In allowing irrationality around homosexuality to guide our collective actions we lost you.

What we all need is to apply the Turing Test daily. I know that despite my own misguided feelings, I apply your test to those I encounter, and that is my way of apologizing to you.


1 comment:

Eugene said...

You should present this nice letter at the 100th ann. of Turing's birth day being celebrated in Lausanne, CH in 2012.