Monday, February 13, 2012

Taking the Humanity Test

Turing Text Extra Credit:  Convince the Examiner He's A Computer
Source:  xkcd
The Prologue of How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles begins with a description of the Turing test. The test goes like this:
“You are alone in the room, except for two computer terminals flickering in the dim light. You use the terminals to communicate with two entities in another room, whom you cannot see. Relying solely on their responses to your questions, you must decide which is the man, which the woman. Or, in another version of the famous ‘imitation game’ proposed by Alan Turing in his classic 1950 paper ‘Computer Machinery and Intelligence,’ you use the responses to decide which is the human, which the machine”
 (Kindle location 112).

Having just finished reading Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, I cannot help but to think of this test in relationship to the Voigt-Kampff test from that novel. Both have the same goal in mind: detection of non-humans.

Turing believed that failure to discern a human from an android using this test indicated that computers could think, whereas if one were unable to identify an android using the Voigt-Kampff test, this would indicate that the android was capable of feeling—empathy in particular.

Both of these tests say something about what be believe makes us who we are and keeps us from being machines. Perhaps we might say another trait that distinguishes humans from other entities is our own preoccupation with our uniqueness from the other.  I often thing that sci-fi, as a genre of media, would be nothing without our fear of becoming un-human.  I digress.

Another characteristic that separates Turings real-life android identifying test from Phillip K. Dick’s fictionalized one is the idea of embodiment. The body is absent in the Turing test because the assessment takes place through an entirely mediated experience—the person making the determination is networked to the test “subjects” (for lack of a better term) through a computer interface only.

 In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, however, the person making the determination and the subject are physically before one another and the subject’s body is networked to machinery, which the test giver will use to interpret the subject’s humanity.  This physicality seems of great importance to the test.  Rick Deckard does not, and likely cannot, choose to simply perform the test over a vidphone.  Instead, he must be present with the subject and he must examine how his subject responded to the test.  Phillip K. Dick seemed to maintain that embodiment mattered.  The lack of humanity in an android wasn't simply displayed by how he or she (or it) felt, but also how physically responded.

N. Katherine Hayles concerns herself greatly with this idea of embodiment in How We Became Posthuman.  Indeed the very subtitle of the book is:  Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics.  She discusses the way in which the Turing Test and Hans Moravec's Mind Children:  The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence both assume that human consciousness can be disembodied without any alteration to that consciousness at all.  To parallel this fact with McLahan's famous line, we misty say that they argue that "the message is the message."  However,  Dick might be said to present a reality that remains true to the original form of this adage: "the medium is the message."  His approach assumes that embodiment is important for our understanding of conciseness and humanity.

Exploring this role of embodiment to the world of humanity and machine might be said to be the project of Hayles' book.  Her into the treatment of materiality in cybernetics lead her on a path from which three "stories," as she calls them, emerged:

"The first centers on how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded. The second story concerns how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon in the years following World War II. The third, deeply implicated with the first two, is the unfolding story of how a historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman" (Kindle Location 205).

Her stories lead her to the posthuman view which she gives these three characteristics:

  • "First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life"
  • "Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow"
  • "Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born" 
  • "Fourth, and most important, by these and other means, the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals"
(Kindle Location 225-226)  

While I've only just begun my journey through Hayles' text, I really like where it's taking my brain.  I'm becoming increasingly more interested in the interface/networking between human and machine, which is leading me to wonder:  when does interfacing end and immersion take over to the point of integration?


Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999.  Kindle Edition.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1975. Print.


  1. I am also reading How We Became Posthuman for the Canonical Books Assignment. I really enjoyed your post, and I was happy to read about your thoughts and perspectives on some of the concepts discussed in the book so far.
    I also wrote about the Turing Test in my blog last week, mainly because I had never heard about it before and I wanted to look into it a little further. I totally agree with you that the Voigt-Kampff test from DADoES is reminiscent of the Turing Test. I liked what you said about how maybe what “distinguishes humans from other entities is our own preoccupation with our uniqueness from the other.” This book really is making me wonder about what function or relationship the “body” really does have with regard to consciousness and the condition of being human.

    A good friend of my mother’s is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and although his mind is completely functional, his body is basically no longer functional. He has no use of his appendages and he is unable to speak. He is still able to breathe on his own, but he requires assistance for all other basic bodily functions. He currently communicates using a small silver dot that is attached to his forehead, which sends a signal to an arrow on a computer screen that he can manipulate using small movements of his head. He types what he wants to say and he can communicate that way. It’s a very difficult existence, and it really makes you wonder what it would be like for him if he could transfer his consciousness to a virtual body. I don't know, maybe that’s one example of a real-life situation that I can see virtual technologies applying to in the future.

    I’m really looking forward to moving forward in this book, are you? I think it’s a dense but fascinating read.

  2. Cheri, You are making me think about the role of distance education and the post human. I wonder about the test because we have a visual dimension to our presence, even as we are clearly bytes of information in our headshots. I wrote about this with my reading of McLuhan. I also wonder about the talks we do in class when we bring up issues related to the class and distance ed, especially making me think of Haraway's consciousness. (posts the post human).

  3. Hi Cheri - You provide a very insightful summary of this dense text. I've been interested in Hayles' emphasis on embodiment ever since reading about it in New Media: The Key Concepts, and I enjoyed reading your discussion of the book's treatment of this topic. The distinctions between humans and machines certainly become murky as we consider computer-human interfaces, social media networks, and technologically-advanced prostheses.

    In this light, your concluding question takes on even more significance. What is the difference between "interfacing" and "immersion to the point of integration"? If an amputee uses a prosthesis without thinking, is he/she a primitive cyborg? If someone considers Facebook essential to daily living, is that person "integrated" into the technology? As new generations spend their entire lives using computers, will the interfaces they experience change how they think (a la McLuhan)?

    Thanks for posing and sparking these fascinating questions.

  4. GREAT job citing the Kindle location! ;-)