Tim Wu sketches an intriguing scenario:
A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.
The traveller’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveller asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.
Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveller would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence.
What the time traveller doesn’t see, of course, is that the woman behind the curtain is equipped with a smartphone. Her extraordinary memory is a parlor trick, a ruse.
Mechanical Turk, the chess-playing automaton, amazed eighteenth century audiences with his prowess at the game of kings — until it was revealed that a small-statured human chess master, hidden inside the automaton, was actually making the moves. And so now the roles are reversed: the superintelligent human hides a small-statured, question-answering automaton! Knowledge seems such a drab thing beside the fireworks of its simulation. Baudrillard: “Everywhere we see a paradoxical logic: the idea is destroyed by its own realization, by its own excess.”
Well played, Mr. Turk.