Mar 16, 2023
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve known that ‘something’s wrong’. No matter 'whom' (sic) I’ve seemed to be, I have not been.”
In 1950, mathematician Alan Turing of WWII Enigma fame, proposed a test (‘Turing Test’) to determine whether a participant in an exchange of text messages was ‘mind’ or ‘machine’. Turing’s test: structure a conversation between two entities, one organic, the other mechanical. If after a reasonable period of time, an independent observer (‘mind’) cannot determine which is which, then the machine may be said to have passed The Turing Test. It’s earned mind-status.
Of course, there are hidden assumptions here. First, we are assuming that both interlocutors are trying to pass the test: Duck, duck… But suppose that’s not true! Suppose only the machine is trying to pass the test. What would happen if the ‘organic’ (i.e., human) interlocutor decided to pretend to be a machine? Goose!
In that case, it’s entirely possible that the independent observer would award the ‘human’ moniker to the machine and the ‘mechanical’ moniker to the human. But not necessarily! Perhaps our observer smells the rat, decides to drill deeper, and skillfully asks questions that allow him to discover the deception and identify the deceiver.
Assuming that only a human could even attempt such a ruse, our observer could now identify the machine. Game over! Or is it? What if the machine can also mask its identity and assume an alternate persona? (We see that today in some recent versions of AI.) What if both parties are capable of feigning machine-like qualities?
There is another, even deeper assumption. We are assuming that the human side of our test pair could herself pass a Turing Test. Suppose that’s not true? But what if many or most human beings can’t pass the test? Then what?
So I decided to conduct my own Turing Test. I put one ‘person’ after another in the box and asked questions designed to allow me to discriminate mind from machine. But Houston, we have a problem. No one is passing! Everyone is coming up machine. So now what?
Let’s check my methodology. Everything I think I know about ‘being mind’ is based on my own subjective experience. Is there one thing I can say about myself that is always true and that cannot be challenged by any so-called ‘evidence’? Yes, there is one thing, just one thing:
I know that I am not me. (Sorry for the mangled syntax.) Who is me? A helpless infant, a tottering toddler, a growing boy, an angry adolescent, a young adult, a responsible adult, a senior citizen. Those are classifications; let’s drill down: a rug rat, a playmate, a student, an athlete, a politician, an employee, a spouse, a parent, an employer, and now apparently, a writer.
My personae have one thing in common: I am none of them. No matter what I do, no matter what role I assume, I am not that person. As far back as I can remember, I’ve known that ‘something’s wrong’. No matter whom I’ve seemed to be, I have not been.
“All the world’s a stage,” but unlike Shakespeare’s actors, I have been given no script, not even stage directions. Add to that the fact that I’ve never seen a play before; heck, I’ve never even been to a theater. I was born onto the set of an improv company with no explanation or training. “You’re here – now act!”
My mission, apparently, is to figure out where I am, what’s going on, and act accordingly. “Act your age” and “Be on your best behavior” are life’s fundamental memes. In other words, method act. Put yourself into your character, no matter who that character is and no matter what’s going on, on stage. And never, ever, step out of character!
My father had his own favorite meme for me, “Have the courage of your convictions!” How can I when my convictions are not mine, but my character’s? I think I had thought this through by the age of eight. I am no newcomer to identity crisis. Growing up, having your own convictions was a punishable offense; having other people’s convictions was generously rewarded.
So here I am, a scrawny eight-year-old, facing a six-foot father, wagging his finger at me and shouting, “Have the courage of your convictions,” when I know that is the one thing explicitly forbidden by the rules of the game I am trying so hard to learn to play. No wonder I have issues!
No matter how well I play my parts, I am out of character all the time. Sometimes I can fake it, but I never seem to make it. My life is a total lie but, then again, any life I might have led would have been a lie too. After all, I am a professional actor; I only assume the personae of the various characters handed to me.
Type casting notwithstanding, I may be called upon to play any role at any time. I am my own Six (or six hundred) Characters in Search of an Author (Pirandello). I am the star of my own personal cinéma vérité. But for better or for worse, I cannot shake this pesky I. Oh, how I’ve tried; how I’ve wished I could be one or another of the characters I’ve played; but no dice! So back to Turing.
I know who I am, and I know that I am not whom I am. I probe everyone I meet to see if they know who they are, to see if they know that they are not whom they are. So far, no one has passed my Turing Test. Everyone tells me they are who they are. Are they? Or, are they deceiving themselves? Or are they lying to me? Could you pass my Turing Test?