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The Lying Game

Dr. Richard S. Wallace

(originally appeared in WIRED 5.08, August 1997)

Dr. Richard S. Wallace

Can machines think? Can the truth set you free? You may be in for a surprise.

Alan Turing, of course, turned the original question into a celebrated test of computing machinery and intelligence. Rather than attack head-on, Turing recast the problem into what he called the "imitation game." The game, spelled out in a classic paper published in 1950, has three players: a man, a woman, and an interrogator - of either sex - who must determine which of the players is the woman. The interrogator communicates in text-only mode and knows the players only by ambiguous pseudonyms. The rules further require that the woman always tell the interrogator the truth. The man, on the other hand, must always lie.

Though the machinations he proposed for the man haven't aged well - tell the interrogator you have long hair, for example - Turing accurately predicted that computers would be capable of playing the imitation game only "by the end of this century." Sure enough, "the first formal instantiation of a Turing test" - the Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence - was not awarded until 1991. And despite the many unforeseen enigmas of modernity, the competition continues to share Turing's preoccupation with sexual stereotypes. Take the beginning of the conversation that carried the April 29, 1997, contest: Did you see that story on CNN last night about the lesbian couple who came out at a White House party on Sunday? No. I just came in yesterday. I'm still kind of jet lagged.Ellen Degeneres was one of them - she was kissing her lover in front of Bill Clinton. Do you think he was very embarrassed?

The Turing test certainly takes on another layer of meaning in light of what is now generally known about Turing's private life. Devised in a time and place that demanded painstaking propriety, the game's mechanical "imitation" of a woman, Freudians might suggest, was a latent expression of Turing's own homosexuality. Indeed, the mathematician died as reviled for transgressing one code as he was revered for cracking another. Brought to trial under British sodomy laws in 1952, Turing refused to deny the charges; he did, according to biographer Andrew Hodges, accept the court mandated penalty of estrogen injections in lieu of a prison sentence. Turing's modern-day disciple Hugh Loebner credits the computing pioneer for inspiring not only his annual AI contest, but also his manifesto for sexual freedom.

Whatever Turing's place in today's gender identity debates, perhaps most interesting is his idea to have the computer play the role of deceiver. The AI program Turing had in mind was not so much a machine capable of natural language understanding as a program capable of lying. The intriguing suggestion is that intelligence itself is a kind of artifice, a deception. This raises a deeper question: Is the feeling of guilt associated with self-doubt and duplicity illusory, or is it in some way connected to the fundamental basis of consciousness?