The Turing test tests what?

Almost total admiration for the Cumberbatch biopic of computer pioneer Alan Turning, The Imitation Game, is dominated by its fairly conventional narrative arc: a genius triumphs over adversity and saves the world at considerable cost to himself. Less explicit in much of the commentary on the film is the role of identity in questions of ascribing human qualities, including intelligence. Left begging is the question about the people doing the ascribing: how intelligent are they?

The Turing test inspired by the man himself is focused on identity, a quality too often ignored in the journey of intelligence from apprehending through computing to reflecting and beyond, into consciousness and then self-consciousness and onto the establishment of identity. When a computer has negotiated that journey so successfully as to seem to a human judge to be indistinguishable from a human, it is said to have passed the Turing test. (More than most people will ever want to know about this test can be found here.)

But to what extent is this test more about marketing than about intelligence? What is the Turing test status of a computer that can fool a room full of the ignorant and credulous, but not a room full of poets or computer boffins? Can a less able machine succeed where a smarter machine would not, simply because it was programmed with the specific goal of fooling people into thinking it was human?

Surely if the purpose of the test is to adjudicate on ascribed intelligence, wouldn’t a more appropriate challenge be to pit a computer against a human and tax another computer with spotting the difference?

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