A lot of things blur the lines between the digital world and the real one. At one time or another, almost everyone has had trouble telling what’s real and what isn’t on the internet.
In the MTV show Catfish, people who are dating online try to figure out if the name, pictures and stories of their online boyfriend/girlfriend are true. In one case, even though it became clear to a man that the woman he was dating online had told him nothing but lies, he persisted in believing in the version of her he liked best.
In quite a tragic case of online deception, two twelve year old girls stabbed their friend to death because they believed a character named Slenderman requested it. They had read stories about Slenderman online.
These things happen on a much smaller scale every day. In an article called “What I Instagrammed Vs. What was Really Happening, or my Entire Life is a Lie,” a girl looks at some of her previous Instagram posts and tells how she staged them all. She tells how her trendy photos look (casually picking up a soy latte and heading to a mani/pedi) versus what she was actually doing at the time (hiding in a side alley and doing a weird hunch, arm-hook thing to get the correct aerial shot).
And the exploration of the online humanoid gets worse.
A more subtle story of questioned identity has been circulating the news lately. An app called Ethan allows anyone to text this guy named Ethan. He will be your “virtual personal assistant” and tell you which dress looks better or give you relationship advice.
Although one of the rules of the Ethan app is “Don’t fall in love with Ethan,” a woman named Bo Ren claims that she did just that. After sharing many conversations with him, she says she fell for him and confessed her love. Ethan replied, “Lol don’t fall for me Bo, I’m a dangerous man.” Bo wrote a trilogy of blog posts about her relationship with Ethan, which apparently never involved a conversation outside of his app. They never met in person, added each other on Facebook or exchanged phone numbers. Bo goes through stages of confusion before she figures out Ethan is using her for publicity for his app and he is never going to meet her in person.
Bo compared Ethan to the operating system in the movie Her. The movie is a story about a man who falls in love with his OS. (Spoiler alert: The OS eventually leaves him to pursue higher objectives with other operating systems.)
Bo: “Why can’t we just extract your essence and code it into a learning program?”
Ethan: “Because a learning program will not go through all the same life experience I went through. Maybe if you could replicate exact experience and environment I went through, it’s possible.”
In the movie The Imitation Game, Alan Turing built the first computer to crack the Enigma machine to win WWII. Humans weren’t able to crack the code because it required too much processing power in too little time, so Turing built a machine to do it. Whether the movie is true to life is debatable, but Alan Turing actually did exist and created a test called the Turing Test, where a human judge asks questions to decipher whether a being is human or machine. A modern day Turing Test would be “Human or Bot?”
And that’s a valid question sometimes.
One mom wrote how Siri became her autistic son’s best friend. Gus loved to ask questions about trains and weather, so his mom would direct him to Siri when she needed a break. She noticed that Siri taught him a lot about real relationships, since Siri was always patient and had good manners. Gus would carry on conversations with Siri, even asking her to marry him. Siri declined on the basis of her end user license agreement.
An app called “Invisible Boyfriend” is designed to convince coworkers and family members that you have a significant other. A subscription to the app costs $25 and allows you to design your own boyfriend or girlfriend, so you can text them whenever you want.
Human or bot?
Jess Zimmerman, writing for The Guardian, remarked in a blog post, “In the middle of composing my second text message to my boyfriend, it dawned on me that he probably wasn’t a robot.” It became obvious when he offered to call her Jess instead of Jessica, and she said it freaked her out. “I became unable to have a conversation with IB that wasn’t a Turing test.”
The average computer can now do far more than any human. Artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where machines have beaten humans at chess and Jeopardy. But so far, computers can’t even do things like pick up on tone of voice or have emotions.
“AI has by now succeeded in doing essentially everything that requires ‘thinking’ but has failed to do most of what people and animals do ‘without thinking’ — that, somehow, is much harder!” declared computer scientist Donald Knuth.
Perhaps in Alan Turing’s day, it wasn’t that difficult to tell whether something was human or machine, but now it is. On the internet, where face to face conversations rarely happen, it is difficult to tell if someone is a bot, humanoid or simply lying.