Suicide and Self-Identity

This is a departure from my normal routine, but I wanted to write about this issue.  Perhaps I could claim it has something to do with Social Science writing. In any event, I will return to my regular form next week

There has been quite a lot said about suicide in the wake of the death of Robin Williams. Besides the outpouring of appreciation and love for the man, the commentary about the suicide has run the gamut from the judgment that it is good that Genie is now free to the assessment that Williams was wrong for taking his own life. Now, a ever-growing number of people has begun to say we shouldn’t say that suicide is ok in any way for fear of “suicide contagion,” the purported phenomenon of suicides spiking when a well-publicized suicide occurs. 

Aside from the “Genie, you’re free” contingent, most everyone else assumes that suicide is bad no matter what. That’s what I’d like to take up here.  (As an aside, Williams himself once made a joke about calling a suicide hotline and getting the response, “Hey, life isn’t for everyone.”)

There are lots of ways to commit suicide. Many of the most famous are what I’d call “surprise-attack” suicides—suicides that surprise almost everyone the victim knows. Maybe Williams’s death was one of these, maybe not. I don’t have any familiarity with such suicides (although my wife does) so I will not discuss them. 

All of my immediate family members who have died committed suicide. And it was great… 

My mother was the first. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1988. She had smoked for most of her adult life, but had quit almost 15 years earlier. When she found out the nature of her cancer, she chose to forego everything but palliative care. She died in January of 1991, having only used pain medicines and some intravenous fluid. She made the decision that she would not trade quality of life for length of life, and I respected her greatly for this. My father, a pathologist, was distraught at losing any time with her, but he abided by her wishes, although he tried to convince her to try chemo.

I know many of you would not categorize this as suicide, but it was a conscious decision to shorten her life (as certainly as if she had tried to overdose—but that doesn’t always work) because she was dissatisfied with her prospects. 

My father died much more quickly from lung cancer (he had stopped smoking when my mother did) and he also refused treatment. This was in 1999, and while I hated to see him go, I respected his decision as well.

But the real story behind this essay involves the death of my brother. Josh was 30 when he had a brain stem stroke in 1983. The stroke occurred on April Fool’s Day during my senior year of college. I remember my girlfriend calling out of her 2nd floor window for me to come to the phone like it happened an hour ago. 

The stroke, which is extraordinarily rare, left Josh with “locked-in syndrome.” If you’ve read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or seen the movie, you know all about it. If not, it is what happens when you are cognitively unimpaired but almost completely paralyzed. Post stroke, Josh could only control his eyelids. He was on a ventilator, slightly hearing-impaired and unable to point his eyes at the same spot. We communicated with him by reciting the alphabet until he blinked and then writing that letter on a piece of paper and going on. It took a long time for him to “say” anything.

Over time, things got a little better. He eventually got off the ventilator, but was never able to speak. All the rest of his impairments remained, but after several months, he did regain the ability to move 2 fingers on his left hand. With the help of two amazing and talented friends, we devised a telegraph key that eventually let him get up to about 40 words a minute in communication.

Josh was a radiology resident at UVA when he had his stroke. He was outgoing and, to many people, funny and charming. He had a fiancé and his future was bright. In an instant, he became a man who needed around-the-clock care, including hourly turning on the bed and care for the most basic biological functions. For the next 13 years, he was cared for at home by my family, mainly by my mother and father and the nurses they hired to cover the hours during which they needed to sleep and work.  

For the next 13 years, my brother decided life was worth living, despite the pain he was usually in and the isolation he felt. He discussed it in an interview with a local newspaper reporter. But eventually he changed his mind in 1996. And my father did what I think anyone would do—he made it possible for him to commit suicide. Josh could never have held a gun, let alone pulled the trigger. He could not swallow anything, including pills or liquids (he had a feeding tube). He could not get to the ledge of a building, tie a noose, drive a car off a cliff or anything of the sort. If Josh was going to die, he needed help. Otherwise, given his level of care, he would plausibly lived another 40 or more years of a life he did not want to live.

My father helped my brother. A friend of his who is an attorney told us it was legally safer to let him starve to death than to take any direct action to shorten his life. He also knew that we could let Josh lie on his back for a long enough time to induce pneumonia and then withhold antibiotics. My father decided that both of those options were barbaric.

Friends told him it was a sin to help and that Josh would surely go to hell if he proceeded. Of course, they only knew about what was about to happen because we had told them. My father had decided that Josh would not surprise anyone by dying. In the days before his death, he heard from and communicated with everyone that mattered to him, including one friend on a satellite phone from, literally, darkest Africa. Josh died surrounded by loved ones, in control and unafraid. And he committed suicide, in every sense of the word. And my father helped him.

I cannot imagine choosing another course of action.

It may be that a difference between these cases and the case of Robin Williams is that the cases I describe seem untreatable or nearly so. It may seem easier to accept suicide in cases where the victims have no real hope of recovery or only of lifespan extension for some time only after suffering through painful treatment. In Williams’s case, it might seem to some people that there are treatments available for depression and so his suicide is somehow worse.   Some evidence that this is what is going on in the public discussion comes from the fact that when the family revealed that Williams was also battling Parkinson’s disease, some previously critical voices grew more understanding.

There are treatments for depression, both talk-based and pharmaceutical, but some depression is treatment-resistant.   My uncle had a case a severe depression that returned after every type of treatment, including ECT. I’ll just assume that Williams had access to all sorts of therapies and found that none of them worked. Or it could be that some drug treatments took away the depression but also took away parts of his personality or self that he considered essential. Oliver Sachs wrote of a patient who called himself Witty, Ticcy Ray who was resistant to treatment for Tourette’s Syndrome, which can be pretty incapacitating due to muscular tics, because under the influence of the effective medication, the patient didn’t feel like himself. Specifically, he wasn’t funny anymore. So, for a while at least, he chose the disease and his wit over the cessation of symptoms and no wit.   Like Ray, perhaps Robin Williams chose not to use drugs that would level out his depression but would also rob him of his wit. Thinking of Robin Williams without his wit is just thinking of someone else who looks like Robin Williams. If this is the sort of choice Williams faced, I, for one, can understand choosing the symptoms and the wit and someday being overcome by the symptoms.

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby writes that given the amount of time it took him to communicate, he could no longer engage in the witty banter he was known for. By the time he “said” what he was thinking, the conversation had moved on and no one knew what he was referring to. He writes that after a while, he just stopped trying to “say” the funny things he thought of and that, after a longer while, he just stopped thinking of funny things to say. He tells a tale of a person who is witnessing his own self fade away.

Now I don’t know what killed Bauby. But I know he died within two days of the publication of his book. According to the record, he died of pneumonia, one of the passive options we were presented with for Josh. Perhaps his loved ones supported his choice, if he made such a choice, not to continue a life he could not recognize as his own anymore. I know that I would support that choice.

Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the almighty that it were an encroachment of his right for men to dispose of their own lives; it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. If I turn aside a stone, which is falling upon my head, I disturb the course of nature, and I invade the peculiar province of the almighty, by lengthening out my life, beyond the period which by the general laws of matter and motion he had assigned to it.

David Hume, Of Suicide


Why the Transporter Will Never Work (thank god!)

Last time, I wrote about the shoddy reporting about quantum mechanics and the supposed promise of teleportation from the effects of quantum entanglement (if that exists). Now I want to write about the very idea of the Star Trek transporter. Let me start by saying that it will never work. Not in the sense that it works fairly unreliably in the shows and movies, often splitting people into good and bad twins or sending them to Bizarro universe or something, but in the sense that nothing like it will ever be a means for getting people from one place to another. And that’s a good thing. We don’t need any more incidents where Kirk is split into decisive, evil Kirk and nice, milquetoast Kirk—that nearly cost us the whole crew of NCC-1701!

bad kirkevil-spock

And we certainly don’t want to risk beaming someone halfway into a bulkhead, or any of the other transporter tragedies we have seen throughout the series.

No, the reason the transporter in the Star Trek universe won’t is that it is, as described, conceptually impossible.

Nerd Alert—I know there are (at least) two competing theories of the transporter in the Star Trek universe.


Theory 1 In the TV shows and movies, the transporter does…well, let me let Bones describe it in this quote where he is refusing to use the transporter:bones mad

No. I signed aboard this ship to practice medicine, not to have my atoms scattered back and forth across space by this gadget.

Yes, the transporter sends your atoms back and forth across space. In some explanations (hey, I said this was a nerd alert) your atoms are converted into tachyons, which travel faster than light, scattered across space and then reconverted into your atoms and then into your body, which, we must assume, is you. Thus, the traditional transported shoots your atoms around space at nearly or more than the speed of light.

That’s the main account of the transporter.

Theory 2 The secondary account, mostly in some of the early novels, is that the transporter is an information processing device that scans (and destroys) your body but sends all the information about you and your composition to a distant place where “you” are rebuilt according to perfectly accurate instructions. (For a glorious animated account of some of the problems this account raises, see this CBC cartoon. Then have a long think about how different Americans and Canadians are.)

Now, elements of both accounts end up in both the books and the movies. The “pattern buffer,” which seems to endorse theory 2, is used as a deus ex machina in a few episodes when the writers need to get a central character back after some disaster. But for the most part, it is (I think) theory 1 for the TV and movie versions.

Let me dispense with the information-transfer version first—if there is only information being sent around the universe, then there must be some mechanism to build the new you on the other end. So, how did the mechanism get there? I guess we had to go set it up, getting “there” by conventional means. So why didn’t we just go there and stay, if that’s where we wanted to be? I know it would speed things up in the future to have these mechanisms in place all over the universe, but it won’t be like in Star Trek where can beam down wherever we please. And, of course, many thinkers believe there is more to us than just some detailed blueprint of where are the particles are, and it is hard to see how that, whatever it is, could move around with this set-up.

Now on to the first and more predominant theory. A baseball weighs about 5 ounces. I’m no pitcher, but I can throw a baseball hard enough that you’d want a glove to catch it with. A major league pitcher can throw the ball hard enough to fracture your skull, let alone your hand. And that’s with throwing the ball roughly 100 miles per hour.


Imagine throwing the baseball at even greater speed, à la this wonderful xkcd episode of What If? The faster the ball goes, the more devastating the consequences, and the ball weighs only 5 ounces. Now think what sending me towards, say, a planet you would do? I weigh 250+ pounds (Dammit, Jim, I’m a philosopher not a body builder!). Accelerating that mass to .9 c and sending it towards a planet would likely be the most significant geological event in that planet’s history. Much of the atmosphere would be stripped away and an extinction level event would be inevitable. Needless to say, I would not survive. So this sort of transporter wouldn’t be a way to places—it would be the most terrifying weapon in the history of terrifying weapons. “People of Earth—Surrender or we will beam Patton down to the surface…”


And all of this still ignores the problem of how my atoms or tachyons get reassembled on the planet’s surface without us having installed some sort of mechanism there…

How fast can we move around the universe? It’s probably going to be limited to the g-force we can survive. We experience g-force whenever we are accelerated, and too much acceleration will kill us. By definition, we experience 1 g of g-force on the soles of our feet when standing on the earth. A fun roller coaster will generate 3-4 gs for short periods, fighter pilots experience up to 9 gs for short bursts and wear pressure suits to make sure that sustained high g maneuvers do not make them black out or die. Sustained g forces over 5 gs are almost certain to cause unconsciousness and the maximum a human being can endure on a rocket sled is 100 gs.


I’m not going to do all the math, but the bottom line is this: our rate of getting from place to place is limited by how much acceleration we can live through, how fast we can ultimately go, and how much deceleration we can live through on the other end of the journey.

So no matter how much we want there to be transporters, there won’t be any like there. Ever. It’s better just to buckle up, and drive a car with airbags. Or take the shuttlecraft in a few centuries.



Teleportation or an Improved Telegraph?

Well, neither, really.

This article from Elite Daily may be the worst excuse for science writing I have come across in a long time.  The headline reads “This Scientific Breakthrough May Have Laid The Groundwork For Human Teleportation.”


No, it hasn’t.  No, no, no, no.

First of all, there is the total mess that the author of the post makes of the actual claims being made.

The lead sentence of the article is this:

Dutch scientists have unlocked the secret to the sci-fi phenomenon of teleportation, successfully causing an atom to vanish and reappear nearly 10 feet away.

Fine.  Maybe they have.  But it is puzzling that the very next sentence says this:

The Irish Times reports that a team led by Professor Ronald Hanson of Delft University conducted a demonstration in which information encoded into sub-atomic particles was teleported between two points with 100 percent accuracy for the very first time.

And, to make things worse, later the article tells us that:

The last attempt to teleport quantum information, conducted in Maryland in 2009, did have a success rate but only once every 100 million tries.

I’m still trying to figure out the difference between something working one time out of 100 million and it happening by sheer statistical coincidence.

lottery balls

After all, there is that whole “infinite number of monkeys” issue.Monkeys

So, what’s the story?  Did an atom disappear in one spot and then show up in another, or, for the first time ever, did information get “teleported” from one spot to another, or did it happen again after having happened in Maryland in 2009?  Enquiring minds want to know, and The National Inquirer had better editorial standard than Elite Daily, which is, embarrassingly, “The Voice of Generation-Y.”  If these children are the future, we’re in some trouble.

 school for the gifted

The articles want us to believe that we’ll be beaming around the universe in no time.  Just remember not to wear a red shirt on the trip.

But even the scientist cited in the interview is unwilling to go this far:

If you believe we are nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together in a particular way, then in principle it should be possible to teleport ourselves from one place to another…In practice it’s extremely unlikely, but to say it can never work is very dangerous…I would not rule it out because there’s no fundamental law of physics preventing it. If it ever does happen it will be far in the future.

Actually, I think the danger lies in letting people believe that such technologies are within reach at all is what is dangerous.  The idea that we’ll get to the point where Star Trek technologies will let us have unlimited energy and undo the harm we are doing to the planet dulls people’s mind to the fact that we are on a massively unsustainable course right now.  And this article, its source and the numerous recaps of it circulating on the Internet are classic examples of what I call utopian porn.

The Irish Times article is scarcely any better (and in some ways it is worse), but one of the main problems here is that the researchers themselves are saying silly, silly things.  Quantum entanglement is what’s being investigated here.  The existence of quantum entanglement, which is somewhat controversial, would entail that information could be transmitted instantaneously, a violation of one of the pillars of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which has as a consequence the law that information cannot be transmitted faster than the speed of light.


It is possible to generate entangled particles, for example, two paired particles with opposite spins.  We know that, according to quantum mechanics, if particle A’s spin is up, particle B’s must be down and vice versa.  However, before a measurement is made, it is a consequence of quantum physics that neither particle has any spin whatsoever.  Since the particles are entangled, even if we move them far, far apart from one another, the moment we measure the spin of A, we know the spin of B.  That is, we get instantaneous information about the way things are in a distant region of spacetime.  Instantaneously, not speed-limited by the velocity of light.

Demonstrating a reliable way of exploiting quantum entanglement would be groundbreaking in physics.    I’ll even grant for argument’s sake that this is what the Dutch scientist, Ronald Hanson, has done.  But demonstrating the instantaneous transfer of information from point-to-point is not at all the same thing as moving an atom from one point to another in no time at all.  Let alone a human body or even a potato.  (To see a great CBC cartoon about the implications of real teleportation, look here.)

So in one brief interview, Hanson goes from saying that if we are just made up of atoms then it is possible we can have Star Trek-like transporters someday to admitting that the main use of this information-transfer experiment will have to do with computing, a better internet and increased cyber security.  Those last three things are good enough to want, but the insatiable need of the bad science writers to sexy things up pushes the headlines and the scientists themselves to make very silly and confused claims, indeed.  And it reinforces the harmful notion that the gee-whiz, there’s-no-need-to-worry-about-real-problems-facing-us future is just around the corner.



Radioactive is the New Black

When I had the chance to spend a month in Egypt in the summer of 2001, I was based in Cairo but took a few trips to other parts of the country. In almost all of the hotels, you had to put your room key into a wall plate to get the electricity to turn on in the room. In Egypt in the summer, this meant that your room was pretty freaking hot every time you came back to it.


Being a typical American, I asked for another key to my room and left the AC on all day, just like a lot of us do in hotels and our homes here in the US. Looking back on it, it was not my proudest moment. I was willing to do just about anything to spare myself a few minutes of inconveniently high temperature (and having to reset my alarm clock) when I returned to my room.

The reasons the Egyptian hotels had this set-up is that Egypt has no oil, relatively speaking. This means they cannot burn it to generate electricity or sell to buy electricity from somewhere else. So, electricity is expensive, and the easiest (and best) solution is just to use less—to stop wasting it all the time. Given the extraordinary percentage of electricity used for air conditioning in the US, setting thermostats higher or just getting used to sweating might be a pretty good idea.

no ac

A few years earlier, when I lived on the Big Island of Hawai’i for a year, I marveled at the first wind farm I had ever seen. It was on the southern edge of the island and it made a haunting, other-worldly noise as we drove by. It is an ideal spot for a wind farm—there are trade winds that blow virtually around the clock, 365 days a year.

wind farm

It seemed like genuinely sustainable energy in a place that was intensely interested in sustainability—on the island, the things you need either occur there naturally or get shipped in at great expense, and the waste you produce either gets dealt with in an environmentally safe way, gets shipped somewhere else, or damages your environment. As a case in point, if you eat the things native to Hawai’i, food costs are actually lower than in New Jersey—a realization that I had when I moved to New Jersey the next year and saw my cost of living rise. But if you want steak and potatoes instead of fish, avocados and tons of indigenous fruits, you’ll pay a lot for you dinner.

But within a couple of months of my arrival in Hawai’i, the power company (with the approval of the local government and with little protest) returned to their previous method of generating electricity—burning waste oil that they purchased from various vendors.

oil power plant

The rationale was simple—it was cheaper per kilowatt hour. Speaking with a long time native of the place, I was told that, being an island, they had no concerns about air pollution (those trade winds I mentioned just blow the smoke away) and therefore it would be irrational to pay more than the least possible amount per kilowatt hour.

I was, and am, still amazed by this reasoning, but I still hear it today in the debate about renewable energy sources versus coal. I think the economic argument is very likely to win the day for a long time to come, so I am fairly pessimistic about the prospects for solar, wind and the other sources of green power until some market change occurs.

 Some analysts expect the market forces to push the cost of fossil fuels so high that green energy will become economically efficient. Michael Klare makes the argument in The Race for What’s Left that we are past the age of easily extractable oil and that the increased cost of extraction from extreme environments (like deep in the Gulf of Mexico) will soon drive the cost of oil too high to be the first choice of energy consumers. He also notes that the added costs of extraction are often externalized in the form of environmental degradation, government subsidies and the like, so that fossil fuels may have more time left than they deserve.

fire water

(The book also has alarming data about other consumable goods such as rare earth elements, and is a sobering read)

As of 2009, 67% of the energy produced in the world was generated from fossil fuels, with coal providing 41%, natural gas providing 21% and oil making up the remaining 5%. Renewables provided 16%, but much of that comes from hydroelectric plants, not from solar or wind energy production. Nuclear power provided 13% But there are other problems facing green energy. Besides being more expensive per kilowatt hour than coal, oil and natural gas, there are problems of continuous production, pollution costs during production (with solar panels, especially) and scale for green energy that may well prove insuperable.

Except, perhaps, for nuclear energy. Already, European countries rely far more heavily on nuclear power than does the US. France, for example, gets roughly 75% of their power from nuclear reactors. No energy source is without its impacts, and the threats associated with nuclear power are widely known. But the cost per kW is pretty low, and therefore attractive to US consumers.

Now certainly some as-yet unforeseen tech breakthrough might help us.


But waiting for that possible help in the future seems irresponsible given the problems we are already starting to face and which will inevitably worsen.

Add to this the fact that in the US, we live in a society where it is not uncommon for people to have nearly one car per eligible driver in the family while investment in public transit has shrunk to virtually nothing, for each household to be temperature controlled year-round whether people are home or not and countless other example of the wasteful use of energy. (We also flush away a couple of gallons of perfectly good, potable water every time we use the restroom. More on that later.) As long as we keep needing energy in the amounts we are using it now, our need will outstrip the potential of green sources to supply it. Eventually, we will not be able to keep up with the demand for energy by any means. And, to make things worse, we keep encouraging and incentivizing other cultures to “get into the 21st century” by adopting, among other things, our energy-extravagant standard of living.

It seems to me that in the short- to moderate-term future we have two choices: use a lot less energy in general or shift from dreams of green energy to the reality of the new black energy, nuclear power. Me? I think I’ll go turn off the AC and see if that helps.



Tesla (Re)Coil

There was an article circulating last week about a man who drove his Tesla electric car across the country, almost 3,000 miles, without paying a dime.  While there is a feel-good aspect to the story, part of his journey was to promote the electric car and its potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions.  He packed a cooler full of food and set off, and spent no money on the entire trek.


Inspired by this feat, I performed a similar stunt.  I drove my stretch Hummer limo coast-to-coast, towing another stretch Hummer with its parking brake engaged, without spending a dime during the trip.


How did I do it?  Not by packing a cooler—I need at least 2 hot meals a day.   I just bought a pre-paid Visa card worth $10,000 before I left, and I even had enough credit on the card to play some blackjack on the strip at Vegas.


Since I prepaid, I insist that I didn’t spend anything on the trip—I just spent a lot before the trip.  If you think that’s cheating, then bear in mind that when you blow $80,000 on a Tesla, you can use their charging stations for free.  Granted, you have to map out a course that connects the dots of the charging stations every 300 miles, since that is the range of the Tesla, but, apparently, it can be done.  But this guy did the same thing I did—he prepaid for his fuel by paying so much for the Tesla.

But there’s the rub.

Charging his Tesla involves using electricity, duh, much of which in the US (about 50% last year) is generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels.  And with the energy lost in generating electricity and sending it along wires to its ultimate destination (which is lost in heat dissipation), using electricity to power a car generates more greenhouse gases than burning gasoline in a reasonably efficient internal combustion engine.  Don’t believe me?  Well, take it from the electric horseless carriage’s mouth:

A caveat to consider is that when coal plants supply the majority of the power in a given area, electric vehicles may emit more CO2 and SO2 pollution than hybrid electric vehicles.     (taken from this pro-ev report.)

It’s called the problem of the long tailpipe.  Just because you don’t see any emissions at the back of the car doesn’t mean there aren’t pollutants getting produced elsewhere.  When we get the electricity from coal, the emissions are significant and, in most cases, worse that the emissions from using gasoline.


And things don’t get any better with hydrogen-fuel-cell cars.  You see, the way to get hydrogen is to crack water into oxygen and hydrogen via hydrolysis, and cracking requires a whole lot of electricity.  Almost half of which is generated from burning coal and other fossil fuels.  The long tailpipe is still there.  And, although this is an unfair thing to say, I can’t resist:  What could go wrong at a hydrogen filling station?

ImageBut this brings up another issue—the infrastructure investment required to make either of these technologies practical is enormous.  If you’ve ever had a diesel car, you know exactly what I’m talking about.


You quickly learn where every diesel station within a 20-mile radius is, because you’re always worried about running out of gas, no matter how good your mileage is.

While electric charging stations are more straightforward and becoming more common, my mind simply boggles at how difficult and expensive the project of building a network of hydrogen filling stations would be.  And again, even though it is unfair:


Add to this the pesky problem of battery replacement and disposal, and it looks like there may be even more coming out of the long tailpipe than we first thought.

And while Elon Musk took the admirable and nearly unprecedented step of releasing a great number of his patents into the public domain to encourage the electric vehicle market, we will have to wait and see whether the way we generate electricity in this country will make it reasonable to these cars.

In my next post I will address the prospects for alternative energy production to lessen the long tailpipe effect, or whether we simply have to reduce energy use to combat climate degradation.


I was going to save this for next week, but it is getting a lot of play.  So here’s a bonus post for this week.  Lucky you.

In a recent Gizmodo post that has singularity fans all atwitter (literally), it was reported that a program calling itself Eugene Goostman, written by Russian programmers, had beaten the Turing Test.

Spoiler Alert:  No, it didn’t.  But that didn’t stop the onslaught of “gee whiz!” reporting and spreading of the word.  Even the Gizmodo article breathlessly claimed

It’s still an obviously exciting breakthrough, though, one that has critics already raising red flags about its implications. “Having a computer that can trick a human into thinking that someone, or even something, is a person we trust is a wake-up call to cyber crime…”


Are there serious concerns about what this means for online security in the future? Sure. But today they’ll have to take a back seat to the understanding that we’ve entered a new era of computing. One that’s alive with possibilities, or at least convincingly enough so.


And, on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, The Colbert Report had a lengthy (and hilarious) segment on the victory of machine over man.  But it seems like Stephen Colbert is one of the few people in the media that understand the insignificance of this story.


The Turing Test was proposed by the late, great Alan Turing in the middle of the last century in order to give some structure to the maddeningly vague question, “Could machines ever think?”


Turing was inspired by a party game of the era, the so-called “Imitation Game,” in which an interrogator asks questions of two contestants, a man and a woman.  The contestants are in a different location, and the interrogator tries to determine from their answers (preferably written) who is who.  The contestants try to fool the interrogator and win if they do.  It’s really kind of like texting or chatting with someone these days and trying to figure out whether you are dealing with a pervert.  Or like getting on online customer-service “representative” that is really just a bot.


I don’t know about you, but I have never been fooled by those bots yet.  I always ask them to write a sonnet, and they just can’t do it (see below).  Citing Stephen Colbert once more, these online bots are about as convincing as this.

Turing decided that a similar game could be used to test whether a machine, in his case, a digital computer, was thinking at the same level as a person.  An interrogator asks questions of two respondents and, if the interrogator cannot do better than guessing at which is the person after she is through with her questioning, the machine has passed the test and should be considered to have been thinking in as important a way as the other respondent was.  After all, all we have to go on when we decide another humanoid is thinking is their external behavior, so getting fooled is no different being confronted with a thinking person.


In his seminal article, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Turing gives the following hypothetical question-and-answer exchange as an example to skeptics who think the test would obviously be conclusive in every case:

Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.
A : Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.

Q: Add 34957 to 70764.
A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.

Q: Do you play chess?
A: Yes.

Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.


Later, during his exhaustive attempt to answer objections to the very idea that machines could think, he gives us this Q&A script:

Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

Interrogator: How about “a winter’s day,” That would scan all right.

Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

Interrogator: Would you say Mr. Pickwick reminded you of Christmas?

Witness: In a way.

Interrogator: Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

Witness: I don’t think you’re serious. By a winter’s day one means a typical winter’s day, rather than a special one like Christmas.


Specifically, Turing is replying to a skeptic who has suggested that the most a machine could do is learn things in “parrot fashion.”  After all, we could record a series of answers on a tape machine and then turn on the appropriate clip at the appropriate time and mimic or “parrot” intelligence.


But after the above exchange, Turing reasonably writes

I do not know whether [the skeptic] would regard the machine as “merely artificially signaling” these answers, but if the answers were as satisfactory and sustained as in the above passage I do not think he would describe it as “an easy contrivance.” This phrase is, I think, intended to cover such devices as the inclusion in the machine of a record of someone reading a sonnet, with appropriate switching to turn it on from time to time.

Clearly, the “test” that Eugene Goostman passed was not a test like the one envisioned by Turing.  Eugene “portrayed” “himself” as a 13-year-old boy for whom English was a second language.  And with that caveat, “he” “fooled” one out of three judges in a 5-minute online interview.  I hope it is clear that this is a pale imitation of the imitation game Turing proposed in his paper.  The limiting of the scope to questions that an ESL teenager could be expected to answer is just one of the problems.  Calling this test “The Turing Test” is another—several organizations sponsor such things for their own reasons, and several bots have “passed” them in similar ways to the Goostman bot.  Add to that the time limit and the fact that we have no idea what the questions (and answers) were and this just isn’t interesting news.  For anyone.  Watson’s performance on Jeopardy! was more exciting.


This was a contrived and artificial experiment, and Turing’s genius deserves better than this intellectual equivalent of a hot dog eating contest.


Turing believed that it was likely that his test would be passed by a digital computer eventually

…I  believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

Our computers (and programs) aren’t there yet, and in a future post I will wade into these controversial waters.  We’re certainly closer than Turing was to achieving this milestone, but Eugene Gootsman is surely not evidence of our progress.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with a link to the upcoming movie about Alan Turing:  The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.


I think it’s a fair bet that the test being written about was, in part, created to promote the film.



Turing Test-Tube Babies