[Humanist] 24.617 a better question than Turing asked?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Dec 26 14:17:13 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 617.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 26 Dec 2010 12:51:35 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a better question than Turing asked

In the coda of his article, "The further exploits of AARON, painter", 
for the Stanford Humanities Review 4.2 (1995), the artist Harold Cohen 
confronts a question that arises from considering what his program 
actually does: "as a series of events that can be shown to have occurred 
and what needed to be done to enable them to occur". He argues that 
"without such an account being given, one is reduced to talking in 
abstractions", here specifically about artificial intelligence. "[I]f 
the events are not available", he says, "the discourse becomes meaningless."

After describing in considerable detail how he was able to make AARON 
"able to isolate and deal separately with an arbitrary number of patches 
[in the image of a potted plant]... [and] able to cope with the filling 
of arbitrarily complex shapes", he asks, "Does that capability 
constitute intelligence?" and immediately answers, "It does not 
constitute HUMAN intelligence." Contemplating what AARON does, for 
example, it is trivially easy to assert that machines think or to deny 
that they do. He imagines the argument that Dreyfuss would have 
constructed twenty years prior, that AARON could do what, in 1995, it 
demonstrably does -- an argument based on an excluding definition of art 
as something which humans do. But, he notes, this "sidesteps a question 
that cannot be answered with a simple binary: it is art or it is not."

Clearly AARON's output can hold its own in any assembly of similar but 
human-produced objects. He concludes:

> I do not believe that AARON constitutes an existence proof of the
> power of machines to think, or to be creative, or to be self-aware:
> or to display any of those attributes coined specifically to explain
> something about ourselves. It constitutes an existence proof of the
> power of machines to do some of the things we had assumed required
> thought, and which we still suppose would require thought -- and
> creativity, and self-awareness -- of a human being.
> If what AARON is making is not art, what is it exactly, and in what
> ways, other than its origin, does it differ from the "real thing"? If
> it is not thinking, what exactly is it doing?

This, I think, is a genuine and very important question. It points to 
the practice of software (and, in Cohen's case, also hardware) 
engineering as a means of probing human as well as artistic 
self-understanding. Cohen, after all, began AARON in an effort to find 
out how he drew, which (he says somewhere) he could not discover simply 
by doing it. Here the end of his investigations is the fundamental 
question I suspect simulation of human cultural artefacts always arrives 
at. It avoids the argument of Turing -- that if we cannot tell the 
difference the machine must be intelligent -- to pose something that 
seems to me far more important and disturbing: if we cannot tell the 
difference, then what is it? And what are we?

Literary computing arrived at a similar question in the late 1970s, 
though by a social and negative route: since (as Rosanne Potter said) 
text-analysis has not been rejected but neglected, we must ask (as Susan 
Wittig said) what is text? And (as Warren McCulloch might have said) 
what are we that we can read it?



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

More information about the Humanist mailing list