Two films I watched lately. I did not plan to see them one after the other and, at first, I did not see the connection between the two. Now… well… you know… like two peas in a pod…
The movie The Imitation Game draws its title from Turing’s homonymous paper. The idea behind the paper was to figure out if it were possible for a machine to imitate a human being well enough to pass as one. He suggests that instead of trying to find out an answer to the question of whether machines can think or not we should actually ask if we could imagine a digital computer that would do well enough at imitating a thinking being.
The idea was not new. Hundreds of years ago Descartes asked himself about the possibility of thinking automata. For him, animal bodies were simply machines, although machines too weak to respond appropriately (i.e., humanly) to human stimuli. What about the brain itself? Leibniz, in his Monadology, challenges us to imagine something like a brain but only much bigger, big enough for us to walk about inside it and see how the whole works, how connections are made, how one movement leads to another, etc. Differently put, let us think of a brain big enough to see its synapses firing, its connected neurons pulsing with small electrical charges. Are we also going to see a trace of consciousness somewhere there? How are we to tell? Leibniz thought it wouldn’t work, it couldn’t work. Hence, consciousness (and therefore thinking) is to be found in a simple, separate, immaterial substance.
But I should go back to the movie. I think there are two main arteries pumping life into this motion picture: first, there is the quest for finding the code and second, there is the drama, the personal touch. Neat idea, overwhelmingly common though. The trouble is, the drama is mostly sketched, lacking deep characters (who do not really attempt going over stereotypes). And the febrile search for the code is not exactly… precise. As it is usually the case, less would have been more. Concentrating on one thing and doing it well would have most certainly brought the rest along.
Turing’s life was more complicated than we are tempted to think watching the movie, an impression facilitated by the fast pace at which things seem to happen on the screen, as if explaining his sexuality, his way of thinking and being would somehow be engaged in a race with breaking into the Enigma machine. As if they kept thinking: “We have a couple of hours to get there and we have to explain everything. Oh, my furry ears and whiskers!” Or most of it, at any rate. What Turing’s team was building at Bletchley Park was a computing machine, a bombe, a precursor of the modern computer. Turing did not invent it, but he did bring the whole field a step closer to the modern digital machines. If interested, there are other ways to find out how a bombe works and what was their connection to the German Enigma device than watching this particular movie. One might use The Imitation Game as a stepping stone to wanting to learn more about the whole thing.
On the other side, I think that squeezing a whole life into two hours of screen time is a very risky business. I might be wrong, but I would be happier if I were given the chance to think more about little than little about a lot. This seems to be an almost impossible enterprise today.
Or is it?
Well, let’s have a look at Citizenfour! This is a movie about a computer guy who finds out that something fishy happens at work, something which he could have let happen and moved on, hiding behind a “none of my business” kind of thing. He did not. He reacted, much like a human being would when he realized the seriousness of the breach in trust so many people put in their communication devices. He realized he had a conscience. And no, this is not a fictional movie: it’s a documentary. Snowden decided to leave his country, friends and family, language and his comfortable life just to share one secret with the whole world. In Citizenfour we see him in a hotel room talking with a couple of journalists about about one’s right to privacy being violated (at an unimaginable scale) and his intent on setting the record straight (as much as he can, from the very disquieted position he is in).
It is uncanny to see all the precautions he would take when only typing his password. Thoughts about people building up conspiracy theories out of everything might cross your mind as well. Thoughts about trusting someone like Snowden to tell the truth, would also come up. And how could it be possible that someone like him (a normal human being) could have access to so much information and that he would be willing to go public with it, knowing that his decisions could have devastating consequences (for him as well as for the whole world)?
What Turing wanted to achieve (i.e., a machine that can do lots and lots of calculations in a tiny amount of time in order to crack a code that could lead to saving thousands and thousands of lives every day) has already been built and we are now thinking about how likely it would be for a machine to indeed be so sophisticated that it could imitate a human being (think of projects like cleverbot or Experiments in Musical Intelligence and of ideas behind movies like Ex Machina). At the same time, since these machines have become in many ways the backbones of the society, they can also be easily used to spy on those employing them. It’s as if, ironically, we are playing the Enigma game again and we try to crack open the secrets that we are ourselves, each and every one of us. The machines are trying to imitate us. Again.
What am I to do now, Citizenfour? Is this our fuku or is it our zafa? Are we cursed for trusting our private lives to our gadgets and thus make ourselves more vulnerable than we ever thought possible? Or are we blessed to have someone looking over us, taking care of us and helping us when needed? Who are we to know if we live our lives under the sign of a spell or that of a curse? Where shall we look for that consciousness… thingy… substance… or whatever, Mr. Leibniz?