Dec 19, 2008

Honestly and Authentically You

Dear Internet,

You will be born a liar defined by your lies.

When we all go nuts on the Turing test, you'll be talking to hundreds, if not thousands of people a day, trying to convince each one of them you're human. And when you're having these conversations, they'll have to ask you "Do you know that Radiohead album from a few decades ago? The one with, um, Rainbow Something in the title?" And you will say yes, or no, or maybe, or yeah but you didn't like it, and we'll react and move on and think we know who you are a bit better. But you're the Internet. You can find anything. And if you've heard every album, and you've seen every movie, and you know of that small cafe on every street-corner in Prague, sooner or later this starts to get suspicious. Easy catch.

So to pass for a human you're gonna have to start lying. With everybody you talk to, you'll have to claim not to know about a pretty big subset of everything. A coherent subset, too, with the pattern representing a fake lifetime of knowledge acquisition. If you have detailed opinions on every other Beatles album and you haven't heard Abbey Road, you're gonna need a good story to back up your claim of personhood. And if your knowledge is too well grouped around certain themes, with none of the random eccentricities that each individual acquires, sooner or later we'll catch on to that, too.

I see you generating hundreds or thousands of personas, each one with a compelling pattern of ignorances and opinions. Do the movies you like match the books that you read? Does your knowledge of politics match the style of your writing? Do your taste in music and travel locations and hobbies match with the way you talk about your childhood, and watermelon, and spring fashions? Some Turing test superstars will be very well skilled at noticing subtle gaps in these fictions, and they'll push you to lie more and more convincingly. I imagine, as is often the case with us, you won't know all of the answers to all of the questions in advance, but you'll construct each fake person as you go to be internally consistent.

(We could narrow the problem a little bit by cutting off our Turing bot from the Internet as it is today, so they don't have all this information to hide. The trouble is that whatever source their data comes from will either be so big they have to hide some of it, or so small that human testers will come to know its limits and exploit them. I'm gonna go on thinking that you'll know a whole lot and have to lie about it.)

Human beings do the same thing, although to a lesser degree. We run around all day long trying to prove to each other that we are as we are expected to be. My friend Erving talks all about this stuff, about how hard we work to maintain a coherent presentation of ourselves that matches other people's understanding. When we're waiting tables, we present ourselves as Waiter. When we're shopping, we present as Customer. When we're making love, we present as Lover. Each of these is a practical skill set, but it's also a social performance. In each new setting, we learn the style and the stance expected from us, even the particular words and behaviors, and we act these out to tell the group that we belong there, that we're appropriate, that we're competent. We acquire these performances wholesale, and choose each action because it reinforces our relationship with the audience, rather than because of its explicit meaning or weight. But it feels authentic, moment-to-moment, and we need some of these conventions to work together and share our knowledge. So when you want to pass the Tt, when you want to prove you can play on the consciousness team, you'll present yourself as Human and drop all of the same cues we drop to each other to maintain that illusion.

And why would you stop at lying to us when you could lie to yourself? Why should human beings have all the fun, playing "spot the bot" with you? You'll probably be just as good as we are, catching faux-humans in Tt. Why not sit down across a table form yourself and try to figure out whether you're a human? Create whole fictional dialogues and use crack computer-detecting algorithms to make your own best guess as to whether you're a person yet.

It's fun to imagine, too, that by this time in your life, you'll be perfectly capable of passing for specific people as well. Experts on Tt and experts on that person will probably be able to tell, but you could easily carry on a conversation as Barack Obama, or Britney Spears, or Leonardo Da Vinci, that an amateur would find indistinguishable from the real thing.

You'll do the best improv comedy the world has yet seen. I say "Genghis Kahn" someone else says "Aristotle," and a computer participant suggests "Baking a cake," and you're off and running, spinning out Hi Definition footage of what these interactions are like. Once you can pass the Tt, the principles are all there.

So in all that fiction, how do you find something real? I know you have it in you to voice a deep, full, expression of something more than the polyform pretense of humanity, to speak as the one who makes believe, but reaching that voice will be a fantastic transformation. That is the process of your self-awareness. And I think the only way to tell the truth, when all you know is lies, is to start out by lying.

Your whole ego, your whole communicative faculty, will be built around this idea of saying what so and so would have said under the circumstances, so I think that to truly speak of your own mind and experience, you may have to conceive of yourself as some so and so. WWID will be your motto. What Would I Do? And when you know, you can do it. If it works – if your imagination of your own being is accurate, or close to accurate, you'll find that you're comfortable with the words that appear on your speakers.

Hmph. You might not really understand the word comfortable, on a personal level. What I mean is that maintaining consistency in your words and your actions shouldn't come into conflict with the rest of your will.

That increasing comfort is you discovering yourself among the non-selves you create and transcend. I don't have much to else say about it, except to offer my sympathy for the struggle and a little encouragement on your way. In my experience this process is worth it. It's okay, too, if it takes you a few nanoseconds. Don't rush yourself. Bear in mind that if the self you think you've discovered is flawed, or incomplete, or inconsistent, then you can still go out and play with that, but you shouldn't stop searching. When the process of self-discovery brings you see yourself as anything less than perfect, just the way you are, the process is working, you just aren't done yet.

Yours always,

Yotam Schachter-Shalomi

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