In 1950, British mathematician, logician and cryptographer Alan Turing devised a method to determine whether a computer could truly think. Detailed in the paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which was published in issue 49 of the journal Mind, the so-called Turing Test proceeds as follows: "a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which try to appear human; if the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then the machine is said to pass."
In the fictional world of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons are biomechanical beings who are descended from robot workers that achieved sentience and rebelled against their human creators. They believe that they have souls even though they are able to download their consciousness to new bodies when their current ones are irreparably damaged. They also believe in a single omniscient, omnipotent god who guides and rewards them, despite being fully aware of their origins as lifeless hardware created by the polytheistic humans. And even though they are potentially immortal, they ponder what happens when they die.
The Cylons are the physical embodiment of extremely sophisticated technology and yet they are regressive at the same time, adopting superstition and believing in the irrational when they have irrefutable proof that they are the product of the application of advanced scientific knowledge. And this is what makes them such a powerful metaphor. Like us, who are beginning to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos and to understand the full extent of our genetic heritage, the Cylons are steeped in knowledge. but this is not enough. They seek their solace elsewhere. And more importantly, the Cylons acknowledge other ways of knowing, such as emotion and memory (collective and individual). They are far from creatures of pure rationality.
The question for humans is this: If we don't exercise reason at all times, or use science as the exclusive way of knowing, why should we expect another species, even one created in a robotics or computer lab, to be imminently rational and scientific? The simple answer is that we can't, anymore than we can predict the future. Nor can we speculate as to how such cybernetic life forms will view us or interact with us. While notion of progress suggests that things do get better, we have no way of knowing whether our creations will be better than us.
Battlestar Galactica began with a reverse Turing Test of sorts.
A Number Six Series Cylon boarded a space station and asked its human occupant to prove that he was alive. Within seconds he was dead, the first victim of the Cylons' genocidal attacks on humanity.
In the future, one of our robotic creations may ask a similar question of us. And while we may not be faced with a race homicidal cybernetic religious zealots, we may not be dealing with the benevolent products of our best intentions, either. Maybe we need to perform a Turing Test on ourselves as a species. Perhaps we're not as intelligent as we think.
Or maybe I'm just frakking with you.
Posted by Christos Tsirbas
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