In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a machine (such as a computer) could overcome the limitations foreseen by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method:
For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words… But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.
Turing called it the Imitation Game; we now call it the Turing Test. Two people—or perhaps one is a machine—sit at teletype terminals and have a conversation. Neither can see the other, but they are allowed to ask each other anything.
In those days it would have been a teletype terminal, not a video monitor, so you wouldn’t have been able to send or request a photograph. You have to determine whether the responses are from a human or a machine based entirely on the text.
Six decades later we actually encounter something similar in online social networking. But I’m not here to discuss “bots” that send automated status updates, advertising, or non sequeters to Twitter or Facebook. I want to talk about humans who, when they log on to their social networking accounts, forget that they are human or social.
One year ago this week, on January 12, 2010, two extraordinarily important things happened. Google announced its intention to close their office in China and shut down Google.cn, their Chinese-language search engine site. Half-way around the world, an earthquake shook Port au Prince, Haiti, to its core, killing over 220,000 people. Aside from happening on the same day, the two events share a deeper theme: they demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of information and communications technology (ICT) in the world at the beginning of the 21st century.
The reason Google left China was more complicated than an altruistic support for human rights and free speech. Yes, Sergey Brin’s family had lived in the Soviet Union before immigrating to the United States when Brin was six years old, and Brin has spoken out for freedom of speech on other occasions; but as many pointed out, China’s population of over a million is an enormous potential audience. The right to search for terms such as “Dalai Lama,” “Falun Gong,” or “Tienanmen Square” alone is not enough to make a corporation pull out of the world’s most populous nation. That debate had gone on since 2006.
It always amazes me that young people today (those in the developed world, anyway) are growing up surrounded by computers and don’t even realize how recent this is. Yet I can sympathize; I felt the same way about the space program, until I realized that the first unmanned spacecraft had been launched only a few years before I was born, and the first American in space (Alan Shepard, in a sub-orbital test drive) when I was a baby. As youngsters, we tend to assume that whatever existed in our earliest memories has always existed.
I majored in English, but dated a Computer Science major. One evening he knocked on the door of my dorm room and found me banging out a term paper on a manual typewriter. “You’re living in the Dark Ages!” he announced, and a few days later he again turned up at my door, this time with a little card that said I had an account at the computer center. He taught me word processing–very primitive–on a terminal hooked up to a mainframe. But I was probably the first English major to turn in a paper composed on a word processor. Being able to edit without retyping a page or using Wite-Out was huge.
Recently there was a stink on the Internet about a woman named Clarabelle Rodriguez who tried to purchase a pair of designer eyeglasses online and got ripped off by an unscrupulous vendor. When she complained that the glasses were knock-offs and demanded her money back, the vendor not only refused to issue a refund but threatened her.
Somehow, Google got blamed. Poor Google! Life can be hard when your name becomes a verb meaning “find everything in the world.”