I’ve been writing a piece about Alan Turing – who was born 100 years ago in June and was the godfather of artificial intelligence. His ‘Turing Test’ still endures as a fascinating ongoing game between humans and computers, whereby a computer can pass the Turing Test if it can convince a human interlocutor that they are conversing (via keyboard) with another human.
As computer scientists tried to develop more and more sophisticated machines to act like humans – and, latterly, learn like humans, one man at MIT in the 1960’s hit upon a different angle, which itself opened up the field of natural language processing. Joseph Weizenbaum realised that many responses to statements contain within themselves an appropriate question to lead the conversation on. ‘I’m having a bad day’ quickly turns round to ‘Why are you having a bad day?’
With just a hundred or so lines of code he developed Eliza, which was based on the model of a ‘non-directive Rogerian therapist.’ In this model of therapy, the therapist mirrors what you’re saying, and turns it back at you as a question, so the statement, ‘I’m feeling depressed,’ is turned back at you: ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling depressed. Tell me more. Why are you feeling depressed?’ This proved very easy to code, and Weizenbaum was quite tickled by the end results.
(You can still have a chat with Eliza here)
His amusement quickly turned to concern, however, when he found that people within his team were asking others to leave the room so they could be left alone with Eliza. Weizenbaum was shocked to realise that, even though people knew that they were talking to a ‘dumb’ program, they still opened up the deepest part of their lives to it. He once came into his office to find his secretary pouring out her secrets to the machine… she asked him to give her and the machine some privacy.
What struck me researching this was that the draw of Social Media may well be less to do with the social side, but more to do with this desire to be open – even to a dumb machine – that Eliza opened up. (See NYT piece here on web-based therapy)
It has become popular to talk of the ‘invisible other’ that we might actually be communicating with when we post to Twitter or Facebook – another other who is not the ‘actual’ recipient/reader of the post. Yet I’m now convinced that social media actually serves a more selfish function: it allows me to speak publicly to myself. By writing something on a social network, what I am doing is presenting publicly something that I have thought of privately. Rather than serving simply to educate or inform others by posting this, by making it public I am actually telling myself to take this thought seriously. The point of telling others is to make myself accountable for my own thoughts. By posting, I draw things more clearly into my personal conscious by making them available to the collective.
In this sense, I wonder if social media thus functions in the same way that Eliza did: as a form of non-directive therapy. Connectedly, (and this post might be of further interest) we might then say that social media posts actually function as a sort of secular ‘prayer’ for a digital age. Not that they are directed to any particular divinity, but that they are a way of drawing our desires from within ourselves in an indirect way.
This relates back to the Turing Test in an interesting way: it may well soon be possible to ‘talk’ to a therapist, who may well turn out to be a chat-bot. The question is, would it matter if we knew?
For a brilliant (and hilarious) examination of the issues around this, have a listen to the Radiolab episode, Clever Bots:
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