Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Obamoid and the Eva Test

The path-breaking computer scientist Alan Turing defined a fundamental divide in thinking about artificial intelligence. He asked us to think about a device which, when a human interacts with it, cannot be distinguished from a human. This gave rise to the notion of the "Turing test" - in which a person interacts with a counterpart and tries to tell whether it is a computer or a person.

My mother had her own version of the "Turing test" -- let's call it the "Eva test" -- in which someone would try to lie to her face, and she would look down, and then say hesitantly, "That doesn't sound true to me." You see, her problem was that she just couldn't understand the idea of a "little" lie.

The Obamoid
(graphic: "Obama Robot to be Set Loose in Central Florida")

I thought of Mom the other day when I read some quotes from an interview with Barack Obama that appeared on Youtube. For instance, the New York Times quotes the President as saying, "I want to make sure that people understand: actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.... For the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates.... a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.” Yet the same article cites a report "by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, [which] found that at least 50 civilians had been killed in follow-up strikes after they rushed to help those hit by a drone-fired missile. The bureau counted more than 20 other civilians killed in strikes on funerals." Further, the bureau "counted 260 strikes by Predator and Reaper drones since President Obama took office, and it said that 282 to 535 civilians had been 'credibly reported' killed in those attacks, including more than 60 children."

"[A]ctually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties" ???

Actually? Actually, I shudder to imagine Mom's discomfort in the face of such mangling of the truth.

In another report, the the New York Times quotes the President as saying, "I’ve been very clear that we’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race, in a volatile region."

"[C]reating an arms race" ? Iran is creating an arms race?? Really? You can say that with a straight face? (I refer -- once again -- to the real numbers behind the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world today ... which I believe must form the basis of any meaningful discussion of how we are to avoid the next war.)

We can see how Barack Obama is doing on the "Eva test." It makes you wonder how he would do on the Turing test. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that in an age in which we have been lulled to sleep by the assurances that drones and robots can do all the fighting, and shield us from the consequences of or responsibility for violence and injury, we are becoming more and more insensitive to the inhuman proportion of the lying going on all around us.

Maybe it's time for more of us to start administering "Eva tests" of our own -- and start demanding truth from our leaders.

Related posts

In my opinion, the reason to focus on drones is this: when we focus on drones, the general public is able to "get," to an unusual extent, the degree to which popular consent has been banished from the process of carrying out state violence. (Sure, it was banished long ago, but the absence of a human in the cockpit of a drone suddenly makes a light bulb go off in people's heads.) It takes some prodding, but people can sense that drone use somehow crosses a line. And that opens up the discussion about how our consent has been eliminated from the vast range of US militarism.

(See "Why focus on drone attacks?")

Recently, some of us have been wandering the Twittersphere, searching for a congressman or congresswoman who will speak openly about their opposition to drone killing and drone surveillance.

(See The Diogenes Project: Can Anyone Find an Anti-Drone Congressman? )

A big Hollywood production of Ender's Game is scheduled for release on November 1. It's a perfect opportunity for us to ask: Are we happy seeing our schools turned into "Battle Schools"?

(See "Ender's Game" and the Militarization of Youth: Can We Talk About This? )