Thursday, April 26, 2012

Does *Writing* Count for the Turing Test?

How about journalism? Automated story software here. I don't know of anyone today who argues that there's no way you could teach a machine rules of grammar and have a database with enough content tags and categories attached to each word to produce workable prose, which is fortunate, because that's exactly what these machines are doing. They're not just complicated echo chambers either, as previous Turing test failures have been cast - they're getting data from the outside world and responding to it. The more interesting argument is about whether there is experience attached to each word: whether when the computer says steak or pain, they're standing for a subjective experience of those things.

(Added later: have a final essay due this afternoon and you haven't even started it? There's an app for that, EssayTyper.)

Certainly the summaries at the end of March Madness basketball games (illustration here) or the sneaky causation-implying pronouns in end-of-day market wrap-ups on the news don't show that the human news writers understand the actual chain of events any more than a machine does. In fact this is a solid argument against a special status for human intelligence: that frequently when it appears we understand something, or even when we believe we do, we're clearly fooling ourselves.

An example of sneaky causation-implying pronouns (SCIPs): "The market was down today in profit-taking." "The market was uncertain today on light trading." Oh, is that why? These SCIPs are even more insidious because they make an assertion implicitly and subtly without bringing it to the surface (just as likely to avoid dissonance in the thinking of the speaker as the listener who they want to accept the claim). Certainly SCIPs are more sublte than the more obvious narrative-forcing conjunction because, which people too often let each other get away with.

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