"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Imitation Game: Machines Imitating Man?

What does it mean to understand something? Put another way, what counts as understanding? The film, The Imitation Game (2014), touches on the question of whether machines (i.e., computers) can think, but the film falls needlessly short in pursuing the question. My aim here is to show how film can be more substantive along philosophical lines without sacrificing on entertainment value.


In one scene, detective Robert Nock, bent on getting at what Alan Turing really did during his stint in the British military, interrogates the professor. The exchange essentially springs philosophy of mind on the viewers. Already having watched the construction of a machine (i.e., computer) designed to “think” faster than the group of decoders of the German coder, Enigma, the viewers have some context for the dialogue on whether machines can think.

“Can machines think?” Nock asks. “Could machines ever think as human beings do?”

“Most people say not,” Turing replies. “Well, the problem is you’re asking a stupid question.”

“I am?”

“Of course machines can’t think as humans do,” the professor explains. “A machine is different from a person; hence they think differently. The interesting question is, just because something thinks differently from you, does this mean it’s not thinking? We allow for humans to have such divergences from one another. You like strawberries, I hate ice skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen. What is the point of different tastes, different preferences, if not to say that our brains work differently—that we think differently—and if we can say that about one another, then why can’t we say the same thing for brains full of . . . wire and steel?”

Unfortunately, the machine vs. human thinking topic ends there, truncating the film's foray into philosophy of mind. The screenwriters could have had Hugh Alexander, a two-time chess champion of the state of Britain and member of Turing’s decoding group, lsay to the professor later in the film something like, “You say that humans think differently, but you use as examples liking something and being sad about something else. You even throw in an allergy. None of these is thinking. Liking is a preference, being sad is a mood, and a person cannot think himself into being allergic to cats. These examples are not of thinking, and yet you use them as such. Clearly you aren’t thinking very clearly—professor.” 

Stepping back to the “metafilm” level, the screenwriters could very easily have developed the initial dialogue between Turing and Noch in a way that would have enriched the viewer’s thinking about the topic while still being entertained. Behind Alexander’s populist-themed, “Take that! professor” lies an advancement or development of the philosophical dimension of the film.

In fact, the development could have been continued. Not content to let Alexander, a rival in the story, to have the upper hand for long, Turing could have replied with, “I was just using those examples to demonstrate that we humans are different. In terms of thinking more specifically, do we simply manipulate words, which are only symbols really, according to rules, such as that certain verbs can go after the symbol cat?  Is understanding just arranging symbols according to rules that we have agreed on? If so, then machines that do the same thing can understand, and thus think.”

Alexander could reply with something like, “Well, when I understand something like justice, I am not just doing mental games with words and rules for how those rules can be arranged. I just know that something is just, so I don’t think that machines can understand, and therefore think.”

“So maybe the question is whether machines can think without understanding?”

This continued dialogue would essentially play out the beginning established during the interrogation at police headquarters. The viewers would have a sense of intellectual denouement while being stimulated cognitively in the process. Supporting the more explicit line, context could be provided—that is to say, the topic could be hinted at recessively while other points are front and center.

For example, when commander Denniston interviews Turing to be a decoder, Denniston is shocked to learn that Turing does not know German. Turing insists that decoding is essentially solving puzzles, which depends on being good at such games rather than knowing the language. Turing could have elaborated, such that the viewers would get more preparation for the more explicit treatment of the topic in the later interrogation discussion.

Faced with Denniston’s steadfast belief that a decoder must know German, Turing could have added the following. “Even though I don’t understand German, I can still work with the words, which are really symbols, according to certain rules. There are certain rules governing how Gutten Tag can be used, for instance. You can’t use the symbols as an opener at night—that would go against the rules agreed on for the two words. In fact, I don’t know any Chinese at all, but if given a list of characters and a set of rules on how those characters can be used, I could write sentences in Chinese that would be understandable to anyone who has learned Chinese. Does this mean that I understand Chinese?”

“No, surely not. You would be functioning like a machine,” Denniston might reply, “and people are not machines”

“I’m not so sure, at least as far as the military is concerned. But I’m not a machine; I understand decoding, rather than just going through the motions. This is what you would be hiring me for.”

The primary point of the dialogue would be whether Denniston hires Turing. The philosophical question of whether the manipulation of symbols according to rules constitutes understanding (or meaning) would be secondary, as is fitting for laying the groundwork. In this way—working with a dimension of a film (e.g., the philosophical) at various subtilties—screenwriting can be likened to writing a score for a symphony orchestra. In some places, a certain melody in the string section is foremost, while that melody is in the background in a few other places. The various depthnesses lodges the string-melody in the listeners’ respective minds more firmly. 

In terms of The Imitation Game, the viewers would be more engaged with the film even as they are entertained. Perhaps we would be more likely to think about the film afterward. Perhaps some viewers might read more on thinking and understanding, and even on artificial intelligence (AI). My point is that the film would have had more depth without sacrificing on the entertainment value.