The Turing Test

FlorenceA2aArtificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere, from Facebook’s facial recognition software to medical diagnostics. However, serious thought about AI predates our current computational capabilities by many years. Long before even Hal’s mental breakdown in 2001, Alan Turing was wrestling with a very important question: when might we be able to say that a machine had recreated human thought? Or put another way, when might a machine be indistinguishable from a human?

Alan Turing proposed a test, now referred to as the “Turing Test”, to determine whether a machine had recreated human thought. In this test, an examiner would ask questions of a human being and the computer, and both would reply via text messages, avoiding the problem that it might be possible to identify the machine from, for example, the timbre of its voice. The machine would be said to have passed the test when it was able to give answers to questions that were indistinguishable from the answers a human being might give to the same questions.

Turing’s test raises many philosophical questions, and a large and lively literature has grown up around it. While we might argue about the details of the Turing Test, the essential question is intriguing: is there something irreducibly unique about human consciousness that cannot be recreated in a machine? Or given sufficient computational power, is it inevitable that a machine will ultimately be developed that can pass the Test?

Recently I attended Sparkle 2018, the annual transgender event in Manchester. Sparkle is great fun; I attend every year, primarily because a very high fraction of my friends in the trans community attend and its such a great way to meet up with people. The trans spectrum is very broad, and Sparkle reflects the entire spectrum, with folk who move regularly in normal society, at one end, including many who live full-time in the opposite gender, and fetishists at the other. What would a casual observer think who happened to wander into Sparkle? Would they think that they had stumbled upon a convocation of women, or merely a large number of men wearing womens’ clothes? The question is apposite, because of the argument that rages between feminists and trans activists about where we draw the lines – who has a right to use the Ladies Room?

Many of those I passed on Canal St were distinguished as “female” largely by the wearing of a wig and breast-forms. If I’m honest, they bore a closer relationship to a pantomime dame than a real woman. Are they all entitled to self-identify as female? Are they all entitled to use the Ladies? I’m not saying that it is necessary to be beautiful, or that it is necessary to have perfect make-up or fabulous clothes. But if we, as trans people, are to ask to be treated like women, then surely we need to try not make it too hard for people to believe us to be women?

I’ve posted elsewhere a link to a powerful piece by Reece Burrows Lyons, “I am a Woman and I have a Penis“. She articulates very eloquently the anxieties we all have about our masculine physical attributes, but those are not the things that I mean here. I’m really much more concerned here by behaviour than by physique; Reece is evidently very feminine and I think most people would have no difficulty in accepting her as such. However, my experience is that many people who self-identify as trans are really not very feminine at all. In a group, some t-girls quickly get busy establishing themselves as the alpha male in a dress.

I belong to a well-known web site for trans people. A long time ago I used to visit the chat rooms, because it provided a means to meet people and share experiences. Indeed I have one really good trans friend who I met that way. But what I quickly found was that there were lots of folk using the web site who were after sex, and they were behaving in a stereotypically masculine fashion. I’ve been married for quite a while now so I have no up to date experience, but my memories of younger days are that on the lucky occasions when a woman made the first move, it didn’t feel anything like the experiences I had on this particular web site. Guys who simply wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. “I’m married”, “I’m really no looking for sex”, escalating to very blunt brush-offs, and always, the assumption that because the guy fancied me, I would naturally want to have sex with him.

I’m deliberately misgendering these people, because I cannot accept that this sort of behaviour should be dignified with feminine pronouns. It felt altogether different from any interaction I’ve ever had with a woman. Which takes us back to Turing’s Test. Can we devise a similar test for gender identity? I’d like to propose a new test. Let’s call it “Smith’s Test” because it appeals to my ego. It’s very simple, and social media afford ample opportunities to experiment with it. When exchanging text messages with somebody, are you able to determine whether they are a natal male or a natal female simply from the way that they write and respond to questions? If gender is on the inside, then a transwoman should be indistinguishable from a natal female in an exchange of text messages.

From my experience a large fraction of people who identify as trans are readily distinguished from natal females in an exchange of text messages. There really isn’t a lot of doubt. Conversations may be steered towards supposedly “feminine” topics, but I think the masculine voice comes through.

But “a large fraction” is not all. I have trans friends who would pass “Smith’s Test”: they’d be indistinguishable from natal females in an exchange of text messages. And you’d know this when you meet them. They may or may not have a penis, an Adam’s apple, a feminine frame; it doesn’t matter because there’s an essence of femininity about them that defies the deep tones of their voice. Its simply very easy to be with them and feel that they are a woman.

One response to “The Turing Test”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s