The idea of an untamed A.I. has energized the popular imagination for some time. In film, there are archetypes like HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the eponymous Terminator. And in video games, where there is no shortage of rogue A.I.’s, “Metroid’s” Mother Brain and “Portal’s ” GLaDOS stand out as two of the most iconic. With so much competition, it’s a minor wonder that Bulkhead Interactive, the Derby-based U.K. studio, has found in “The Turing Test” a meaningful way to explore this motif.
In the game, you play as Ava, an engineer who has been revived from cryogenic rest by TOM the A.I. on a space station. The station is a satellite orbiting Europa — Jupiter’s sixth closest moon. TOM tells Ava that communication has been lost with a ground team and that it’s imperative that she assist in finding them. After landing on Europa, it becomes evident that the robotically-built base where the astronauts were last spotted has been given an interior makeover. Specifically, the base’s rooms have been reconfigured into puzzles or Turing Tests meant to differentiate machines from humans.
Turing Tests owe their real-world status to the ideas raised by Alan Turing, the famed twentieth-century mathematician who was a pioneer of computer science. In his article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” published in the October 1950 issue of “Mind,” Turing suggested that it should be possible to one day program a computer to act in a way that was indistinguishable from an actual person. As an example, he imagined a computer playing a version of the imitation game — a parlor game in which a man and a woman retreat into two separate rooms and the man is charged with impersonating the woman. The challenge for the guests is to identify which of the two people in the two closed rooms is a woman when all they have to go on are typewritten responses to their questions slipped under a door. Turing hypothesized that it should be possible “in about fifty years” for a computer to “play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than a 70 percent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning.”
In “The Turing Test,” the imitation game is subjected to an ironic reversal. There is a computer on the base of Europa that the player can interact with that’s convinced the player is a robot.
In the years since Turing proposed his criteria to demonstrate machine “thinking,” his arguments have inspired several critiques, perhaps none more famous than John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, which is materially rendered in the game. In his paper, “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” Searle argued that just because a machine could be programmed to fool one into thinking that one was conversing with a human, it would be wrong to say that this constituted a display of genuine thought. As an example, he imagined himself in a closed room surrounded by reference materials where he receives batches of paper written in Chinese. Using the reference materials, he, who knows no Chinese, is able to copy out appropriate responses to the messages he has been given and slip them back outside. According to Searle, though it might look to an unsuspecting observer as though a meaningful conversation were taking place in Chinese, this is an illusion because he is “manipulating uninterpreted formal signs.” His understanding of Chinese is, in other words, akin to a computer program.
“The Turing Test” dramatizes the concept of machine thinking by creating a scenario in which it may be said that an A.I. demonstrates a higher level of moral reasoning than the humans around it. Over the course of the game, the player learns that the missing ground crew and TOM had a disagreement after they discovered an organism which TOM reasonably contends should not leave Europa.
The narrative brilliantly plays with the TOM’s ability to exhibit human fallibilities such as doubt, conflicts in synthesizing information, and conflicting memories. It is TOM who explains to Ava the significance of the Turing tests and, while recognizing his own limitations, claims elsewhere an equal status as a thinking entity.
The puzzles in the game are exquisite. They are meant to demonstrate the power of lateral thinking — what machines can’t do. In this way, the game calls attention to some of the fundamental cognitive practices involved in gaming. The player is made to reflect on the fact that Ava has been tasked with learning rules — for example, that blue power spheres provide a continuous flow of electricity while green spheres generate it on and off — that must be combined in creative ways to demonstrate a meaningful, as opposed to a haphazard, understanding of the underlying logic of the puzzles she encounters.
“The Turing Test” achieves a rare harmony of gameplay and narrative. It should make one think about the flexibility of the mind and what it means to consider one’s species the apex of creation.
David Jones is the lead designer and writer on “The Turing Test.” We recently interviewed him about some of the gane’s themes .
Q. How did you conceive of the game? Did you have any special interest in Alan Turing or John Searle prior to when you began the project?
“The Turing Test” was developed as an evolution of our last game, “Pneuma: Breath of Life,” as we felt there were strong themes we could build upon. “Pneuma” dealt with free will in the context of a video game, however there was an issue with the lack of rules. The game would invent rule sets and abandon them as soon as they were constructed.
The guiding principle of “The Turing Test” was to develop one simple mechanic that had great depth. The tests then started to inform the story, and the story started to inform the tests.
I visited Bletchley Park (where the Enigma code was cracked in World War II) a month ago and it felt almost numinous to visit the Colossus computer. Alan Turing is an inspiration. I suppose perhaps only Haber, Euler and Newton have contributed more to humanity! But the controversy around the Turing test was as much an inspiration as the Turing test itself. The Turing test is suitable as a test for a sort of intelligence. But perhaps science fiction has taken its application beyond what Turing intended.
Q. One of the things that fascinates me about the game is how it seems to thread a path in between other known archetypes of the hostile A.I. trope- – I’m thinking of Portal’s GLaDOS and HAL 9000 from 2001. TOM is neither crazy like GLaDOS nor as ostensibly “cold” as HAL. Tell me how did you conceive of TOM’s character?
For us “The Turing Test” is a love letter to some of our favorite games and films, including “Portal” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” We knew that, by constructing a game that appeared similar to other titles in the genre, people would carry across their expectations. This enabled us to circumvent those expectations. The voice of James Faulkner really sells TOM’s warm but calculating character. The credit really goes to him for that.
TOM’s personality is perhaps most similar to Gertie from the film Moon. A curious mixture of calculating and emotive. A Sheldon Cooper like robot. We put a bit of Johnny Five in too, that informed some of his design.
Q. Although TOM cannot get passed the tests without Ava’s help, he otherwise displays many of the hallmarks of consciousness. At one point, he displays a capacity for self-doubt when he muses that perhaps he is not infallible, merely untouchable. Do you think this capacity for doubt shows that TOM has in some ways “passed” the Turing Test?
Some argue that a machine would have to lie to pass “The Turing Test.” For a computer to claim it is a human is either a lie or a delusion. So surely a truly self-aware (and honest) machine would admit it was a machine? Something truly self-aware would fail the Turing Test.
But if you want to know where I lifted the quote you referred to from, watch the British film “X+Y”. It’s a tearjerker.
Q. What were the guiding principles that you used in constructing the puzzles? I ask, because I greatly appreciated how well the narrative and the gameplay aligned.
Developing puzzles was difficult. Specifically for the TOM sections of the game. In order to design a good puzzle you must realize something about the ruleset you have developed and expose that to the player. The challenge is this: in order to create ‘aha’ moments for the player you must first have them yourself. In a 3D puzzle game that means making a lot of spaces to play in and try and discover something interesting. Some days I would discover many new puzzles, other days I would discover none. This was a grueling year of “The Turing Test’s” development.
Mechanically the game is about states. Power on and off. Binary. So, the narrative is allowed to sit alongside this gameplay with little dissonance.
General rules were:
- The player must be able to complete the puzzle in a few steps.
- Once the player has realized the solution the execution must be easy to perform.
- Each puzzle must show something new about the mechanics.
- Only optional puzzles can break established rules.
Q. What was the hardest part for you to wrap your mind around during the development of the project?
The thread about AI and consciousness. That deals with lots of difficult ideas. It was a challenge to make a story about AI and philosophy interesting without being ‘pretentious’. Pretentious is very easy to achieve. Interesting is not so easy to achieve. This meant the script was revised to be as understandable as possible. While trying its best to not be condescending. To make the complex simple is interesting. To make the simple complex is pretentious.
Q. Is there an element of “The Turing Test” that you’re particularly proud of?
I’m very proud of the difficulty curve, the progression and the team’s work to bring it all together. But something that hasn’t been picked up on all that much is the hard science fiction story. My wife has a master’s in biology and worked with some of the doctors at the University of Nottingham to create a fictional lifeform based in hard science. If you explore the bio lab you will find lab books that detail the organism. These documents are fabrications but they’re very accurate ones. The mechanism the organism uses to ‘repair’ DNA damage is really well thought out. It’s a detail very few people will get, but it is there as one of the evidences we’ve really thought about this universe.
Q. Is there anything else that you would like to communicate about the game such as a philosophical or aesthetic principle that you would like for your audience to consider.
The Universe’s Machine Epsilon.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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