The Reverse Turk


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.

4 thoughts on “The Reverse Turk

  1. Brent Cox

    Part of the time traveler’s problem is that he equates intelligence with the recitation of accurate information. By that measure, the woman’s smart phone is indeed smart. A better measure might be the ability to intersect information and then create something completely new–a new way of viewing the world, a new sonnet or a new play. I fear our society is increasingly making the time traveler’s mistake, however, and the uniquely human ability to create the world anew is being dismissed in favor of mere data.

  2. CS Clark

    One the one hand, Plato

    What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

    On the other hand, I looked that up, copied and pasted. On the other other hand, I knew what it was I wanted to look up. I didn’t search for “famous quotes by philosophers that refute the Internet as personal memory storage”. On the other other other hand (I’ve outsourced my hands to technology), that search did turn up this (and note address) as its first result in Google which is… relevant? Yes it is, because reading it and its account of different views of what memory is helps me realise that the main thing that really weirds me out about Tim Wu’s piece is that it seems to suggest a complete separation of person (ideas, identity) and memory is not only possible but desirable – or, if it’s not desirable it’s not clear why some memories should only be held on local storage.

    (The other thing that weirds me out is the way that he seems to suggest that a civilization’s collection of knowledge, whether in a library or the Internet, is more or less the same thing as an individual’s knowledge, as long as they can access it, irrespective of whether they do.)

    tl;dr – The Internet is useful, but nobody plays the ‘Which three people would you most like to have dinner with and why?’ game and answers ‘Any three random people with smartphones and l33t Google-fu, because they would know everything.’

  3. Cindy Wolff

    The scenario assumes the person behind the curtain really knows how to search and is highly capable of identifying reliable sources. Apparently, everyone with a smart phone has mastered these skills. Mere access to information is equated with literacy. Pesky learning doesn’t get in the way–that would slow down consumption.

  4. Ed van Stranden

    I like Wu’s observation that Nick judges the human being, Thompson the cyborg, where the smartphone and the human being have become one. But even if you see it that way, the thought experiment crumbles here:

    “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.”

    Throwing “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” might give you a result that could be considered a “complex theoretical answer”. But if our time-traveller would ask further after not being satisfied with the answer, our cyborg will probably be reduced to incoherently mumbling about some concepts that seem related to the question.

    Really answering the question means grasping a lot of concepts and connecting them in a meaningful way. And that’s exactly what separates understanding from merely being able to look things up. Being able to look things up was already possible in 1914. It only took much longer then.

    So I think what has changed is the speed with which we can look things up, not our intelligence. We might be able to fool our time-traveller, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves.

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