Benefit of the doubt: The Turing test and sentience

A super computer raised a bit of a fuss this week:

A “super computer” has duped humans into thinking it was a 13-year-old boy to become the first machine to pass the Turing test, experts have said. Five machines were tested at the Royal Society in central London to see if they could fool people into thinking they were humans during text-based conversations.

The test was devised in 1950 by computer science pioneer and second world war codebreaker Alan Turing, who said that if a machine was indistinguishable from a human, then it was “thinking”.[1]

I do not know Turing’s rationale for evaluating such results in the way that he proposed. But at bottom, his test highlights a problem, which remains much more important than the test itself or the performance of that super computer.

The problem is that not only is it impossible to empirically know what another person is really thinking, but that we cannot even tell that they are thinking at all. Indeed, I have yet to even see a proper definition for what thinking is.

A proper definition would be non-circular and provide a clear means of distinguishing between mimicry and the thing itself. That is precisely what the Turing test does not do. It does no good to say that a ‘thinking’ being weighs alternatives or evaluates claims, or that it produces original ‘thought.’ These still fail to explain what thinking is. And so it is that we merely assume that some creatures—mostly human—think and that most other creatures do not. We limit our notions of sentience and, therefore, of moral personhood on arbitrary and self-serving grounds when in fact there is considerable room for doubt.[2]

Turing’s test, in effect, extends computers the benefit of the doubt and paves the way for a consideration of computers’ possible moral personhood. Personhood is important because when we decide that a being is in fact a person, that entails certain rights and duties both on the part of the being and on the part of society toward that being. Hence the quandaries over abortion, corporate personhood, and of personhood for captive chimpanzees. A person has a right to dignity and to conditions that permit her, him, or it to live in dignity. A person can sue or be sued. A person has habeas corpus rights. We have duties toward a person that we do not extend to non-persons.[3]

But really, these machines say more about us than them. “You don’t write a program, you write a novel,” explain Eugene’s creators. “You think up a life for your character from scratch – starting with childhood – endowing him with opinions, thoughts, fears, quirks.” When the best way to pretend to be human is to imitate our foibles and weaknesses as much as our strengths, the victors of Turing tests will continue to be the least scary output of artificial intelligence research.[4]

The trouble is that passing the Turing test really gains nothing more than the benefit of the doubt. We still don’t know what or even if a computer is thinking. In this light, Turing’s test should be seen as more of a milestone. For now, we have a certain assurance that the gulf in complexity between even our most fantastic machines and a human brain is vast and that the even the networking we have with all the machines on the Internet falls far short of the sophistication of that in a human brain. But we are now on notice that we may be creating a sentience which is entitled to rights and duties.

We’re ill-prepared to do that. We fail even to recognize the rights of sentient beings already in existence as we cruelly exploit animals as means to our own ends. Even more profoundly, in a neoliberal era, the gap between the promises of international human rights law and their delivery seems, if anything, to be growing rather than shrinking. As I look at the fuss over the Turing test, I worry that we may in fact be more willing to recognize personhood in machines than we are in our fellow travelers—both human and non-human—on this earth.

Update: The claim that “Eugene Goostman” passed the Turing test is not universally accepted.[5]

  1. [1]Press Association, “Computer simulating 13-year-old boy becomes first to pass Turing test,” Guardian, June 8, 2014,
  2. [2]Elisa Aaltola, “Animal Ethics and Interest Conflicts,” Ethics and the Environment 10, no. 1 (2005): 19-48; Matthew Cole & Karen Morgan, “Veganism Contra Speciesism: Beyond Debate,” Brock Review 12, no. 1 (2011): 144-163.
  3. [3]James Gorman, “Rights Group Sues to Have Chimp Recognized as Legal Person,” New York Times, December 2, 2013,; Arin Greenwood, “Chimpanzees Sue For Their Freedom (With A Little Human Help),” Huffington Post, December 2, 2013,; Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, “‘Animals Are Persons Too’,” New York Times, April 23, 2014,; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, 999 U.N.T.S. 171,; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI).; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Human Rights Law, 2013,; Eric Posner, “Stop Fussing Over Personhood for Corporations and Chimpanzees. It’s Essential and Entrenched in the Law,” Slate, December 11, 2013,; Charles Siebert, “The Rights of Man . . . and Beast,” New York Times, April 23, 2014,; Brett Snider, “Caged Chimp Is a Legal Person: Animal Rights Petition,” Findlaw, December 3, 2013,; Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations, December 10, 1948.
  4. [4]Alex Hern, “What is the Turing test? And are we all doomed now?” Guardian, June 9, 2014,
  5. [5]Ian Sample and Alex Hern, “Scientists dispute whether computer ‘Eugene Goostman’ passed Turing test,” Guardian, June 9, 2014,

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