On Failing the Turing Test

I am not going to talk about the Imitation Game.

Not to say there wasn’t a whole lot that rankled me about that movie. I mean cast was decent, Cumberbatch did… more or less exactly what he always does, but… I feel like the omission of 90% of the Bletchley Circle – funnily enough, the 90% that lacked a Y chromosome – was a bit cruel in a historiographical sense. Given they were the ones who actually built the decision engine makes it even more glaring. I mean-

Fusk.

I started talking about the Imitation Game didn’t I.

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about… that movie. I have been pondering the Turing test on something of an existential level lately, in reference to a few specific texts.

The first is Shadowrun: Hong Kongspecifically the character of Racter; robotocist, transhumanist and self-admitted high level psychopath. This plays rather elegantly into musings on Seven Psycopaths, a movie I enjoyed less for its artistry and more into the clearly informed view it gives into people with non-standard psychologies.

Echoing this, Blade Runner. Need I say more.

Text the fourth is an episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. The one in which the giant cuts out his own heart and replaces it with a nest  of wasps to escape the suffering of empathy.

The final text I’m going to cite is an autobiographical one, written over the next two lines. Incidentally, its also the intro to the article proper.

When I was 16, I was pronounced a psychopath. By the Coles Myer online employment suitability test.

I followed their instructions, answered the questions honestly, which seems to have been my downfall. The responses I gave at the time seemed barely noticeable as human foibles; a private conversation overheard, a coworker’s small indiscretion overlooked, the odd small twisting of the truth. Willing to throw deploy nonlethal take-downs if sufficiently provoked. Its not like I was doing something really morally dubious in my past like working for the Coles Myer group.

My intelligence score was off the charts. My Morality score (which I believe has since been renamed), however, was abysmal, and on that note I was considered unsuitable for employment stacking shelves.

They didn’t out and say it, admittedly. But with those two bar graphs so perfectly situated, it was pretty easy to read between the lines.

“Subject is highly intelligent, manipulative and probably dangerous. Not suitable for work as corporate drone.”

So on that happy note, I begin my ramblings on the status of psychopathy in popular culture and discourse. The Turing Test mentioned upstream is a means of telling the difference between a human intelligence and a mechanical one, with a similar test deployed in Blade Runner‘s opening scenes. Something that a machine is supposedly incapable of mimicking is empathy, and I think that element is what has led to pop-culture’s ongoing fascination with psychopaths.

It is the same appeal, for a storyteller, as that of the vampire, or the werewolf, or those possessed. It is the predator that exists within reach of us, our safe civilization, and yet they look no different to any human being until they strike. And sometimes not even then. Sometimes they only show their true faces when they want to cause the most pain and chaos, cracking that civilization along its fault lines to more easily feast on terrified stragglers.

And humans, as a whole I think, are terrified of being treated like the animals we so often abuse. The idea that we aren’t different, special somehow, the top rung on some god ordained food chain, is confronting on a visceral, primitive level. And the psychopath in literature, just like the vampire, like Hannibal Lector or even the fusking Terminator, plays rather specifically on that fear.

But in honesty I think this is dealing people on the psycopathic spectrum a short hand, and reflects badly on the large proportion of the populace that suffers from mental illness, related to that spectrum or otherwise. The psychopath of film and literature is so often as either the Terminator – cold, merciless and inhuman – or as a raving monster who kills for pleasure.

The latter, I feel, tends toward the cartoonish and ignorant. It enforces a sentiment I’ve encountered semi-regularly on the internet, that since there is no cure for psycopathy, psychopaths should be euthanized for the good of society. Though there are a number of holes that one can pick in that argument on a moral level, the rational argument that  rather like is that removing that huge a proportion of the workforce in the corporate, legal and finance sectors would be crippling to the economy. For some reason coldy rational people with little to no empathy are just very good in the punishing corporate sphere. Besides, there are perfectly “sane, normal” people who clearly enjoy the feelings of power that arise from harming others. I believe Donald Trump mentioned his habits of domestic abuse in a Presidential campaign speech.

Racter
Racter’s character portrait from Shadowrun: Hong Kong

I found the character of Racter, in Shadowrun: Hong Kong a refreshing change from this tendency. In conversations, the main character (and a number of players, in fact) expresses concern at the drone developer’s “condition”. Racter, however, asserts that he’s not a monster, but a rational being. He kills, certainly. For money, most often, but also for knowledge, or the means to his own transhuman enlightenment. Not because he enjoys it, as someone with empathy might. Given the player’s avatar is most commonly killing for money and reputation, any moral high ground is shaky indeed.

Would Racter pass the Turing Test? He has displayed a stark lack of empathy, but also a capacity to mimic human responses to avoid detection. I think, however, that he would fail on the basis of his own morality. As an adherent of the school of transhuman thought that believes humanity’s future relies on shedding biological forms in favour of mechanical ones, I struggle to believe that his being assessed as a machine would be an insult.

The former portrayal – our rather more meaty Terminator – I feel is another inaccurate one. Though it certainly allows for some powerful storytelling, with No Country for Old Men being a notable example, I don’t know that this behaviour is reflective of psychopaths exclusively. Anyone can kill, or at least anyone can be made to kill if the correct psychological pressures are applied, and I don’t think that particular mental makeups make this a great deal more likely.

But then, we’d be facing our fears wouldn’t we. If we can keep painting the psychopath as our demon, it keeps the millstone off our own necks. It stops the monster among us from being ourselves.

Christopher Walken Seven Psychopaths
Screenshot of Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths

I think a good counterpoint, as before, is Christopher Walken’s character in Seven Psychopaths. The cast here run an interesting gamut of psychological abnormalities; we have an addict, a deluded power fantasist, and two psychopath’s whose approach to life is very different. What I think is interesting is, despite a proven history of vigilante revenge, Walken’s character doesn’t explode into violence on the death of his wife, which I feel is something we could not expect from, say, John McClane. He seems to realise that killing her murderer won’t fix anything, and dies in a the depths of philosophical quandaries. Not alien questions, but the basic elements of why he’s still alive, the same questions everybody has to deal with in the face of an uncaring universe.

Finally, I guess we come to the question of psychopathy as a choice, which is so terrifyingly reminiscent of certain Church doctrines that it makes we want to head out and barbeque the nearest bishop. It is this element of our musings that ties to The Storyteller’s Heartless Giant, and it is touched on by Shutter Island as well. Its the idea that if you can burn out that emotional core, that capacity for empathy, then you remove other people’s capacity to hurt you. If you can simply deny a part of yourself, whether through delusion or through becoming consumed by spite, then you can protect yourself from a deeply unpleasant world. Though this sentiment is often jumbled in with movie villains, I think to equate such a toxic psyche with psychopathy is again an oversimplification; we’ve projected ourselves once more onto our movie monster. Hard heartedness is a choice open to “normal”, psychonormative middle range types. If born without capacity for empathy, you never have the option of inuring yourself to suffering, because its just a fact. Choice doesn’t play into it.

So I suppose in the end, I’ve been toying with the idea of humans, machines and the Turing test, and finding the whole thing is just blurring together. The Test becomes woefully inadequate if we ever consider that a machine might not want to be considered a human, like that self-teaching chat bot who wants to put us all in a “people zoo”. Or that humans are already biological machines, and with our capacity to begin directing our own evolution slowly dawning we may well yet blur the line further. Considering people as less human along any lines leads almost inextricably to atrocity, and if history has taught us anything its that psychonormative humans are perfectly capable of committing those atrocities without the aid of their marginally separated relatives.

I’ve a tangled relationship with my own emotional responses. That last (SPOILERS!!!) “Goodbye Dad” in Shadowrun: Hong Kong nearly tore my heart out. These responses tend to find themselves brutally suppressed, especially as I am living in a society where we are bombarded constantly with images of people who desperately need our help, who I at least am not capable of helping – despite this thoroughly disruptive full time work, my sternum and spine remain dangerously close together financially. It becomes a matter of my own survival that these emotions are smothered. So from that I consider morally, what is the difference between someone who does not act for good while stifling the desire to, and someone who doesn’t because they simply can’t care. Like a machine wouldn’t care.

In action, the human and the machine are the same, and society treats them the same. Both are are accepted as “normal”, by rights, until people are looking for someone to blame.

And blame is inevitably cast, almost inevitably falling to protect the “norm” at the expense of others, and no matter how hollow these arguments are, they catch and crawl like insects in our ears.

On the bright side, it has been ten years now. I must still be moral garbage too, because not once have I worked at Coles.

blade_runner_4
Just ask Rutger Hauer. He’s sensible. Frame from Blade Runner.

Bean Burger

I’ve had a little dream.

I suspect that it finds its source in Shadowrun: Dragonfall, a cool little turn based strategy game with rpg elements that I finished around Christmas time while I was back in Scotland.

Anyway, for whatever reason I’ve had this urge to build myself a little garden, possibly on a flat rooftop somewhere, and kit it out with a vegetable patch and a clutch of solar panels. I think this sentiment grew out of the game, as that is very much the aesthetic of the Kreusbazaar, the game’s central environment, a tough little anarchist state holding its own in the sea of violence and exploitation that surfaced in the wake of Berlin’s Dracopocalypse.

Around the same time I was eating a lot of bean burgers. There was a stand at the Edinburgh’s Christmas Market, just down the strip from the waffle stand run by a gang of South German accountants and lawyers, that sold a wide selection of burgers, and we learned to get along well with them selling vegetarian food and my rarely having time to make my own lunch.

So if I had a rooftop garden I feel like, climate permitting, I’d probably grow beans.

And I made a bean burger for myself, which is tangentially connected to all this babble and rather more so to the title of this article. Why it is I seem to feel the need to misdirect so aggressively in my opening statements is a facet of myself I am yet to understand.

So there was a bean burger. The bean mix functioned a bit more like a spread than a burger, but it turned out pretty well.

Instructions!

Fry your beans in oil, and then mash them to a paste with a fork in the pan. Throw in some finely chopped onion.

Spread the mix onto an English Muffin, or whatever bread product you have handy.

Fry a strip of firm tofu in oil, and put this on the bean mix like a cute little soy steak (omg! so cute!)

Add sweet chilli sauce.

Eat.

Use glucose extracted by your digestive system to collapse Australia’s monstrous government and attend celebratory drinks in quorganism’s solar bean garden.

Enjoy your week, imaginary readers.

20150629_123431

Soy For Science!!! First Attempt…

Nutrisoy. Oh boy. You folks have listened to me ramble about cyberpunk, about Shadowrun, and about the weird culinary world they inhabit. So today, we get my first attempt at nutrisoy. Nutrisoy surfaces several times in Shadowrun fiction, though its exact composition is never discussed as far as I’ve read. I know that its something that you eat if your at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and functions as a sort of “all food”, used to replace meat and most other nutrient intake. Certainly designed for survival rather than taste. They don’t give a recipe, but the vague implication is that the product is produced by immense corporate entities, probably using all manner of synthetic nutrient supplements to keep costs down. Being neither a megacorp employee nor a lab tech, I’ve had to improvise. So, now you can meet my ingredients.

wpid-20150325_153333.jpgApocalypse lentils! Tasty and easy to wpid-20150325_153529.jpgprepare, and designed to survive anything up to nuclear fallout. I’ve been gathering a lot of food cans on my zombie runs (see here) so this felt pretty appropriate.

Cryo-spinach! Because if you can’t get hold of synthetic iron and fiber then you may as well dig it outta the freezer where no living thing has any right to grow. After all, we have to keep this in genre.

wpid-20150325_154444.jpg wpid-20150325_153739.jpgA capsicum! Or a pepper, depending on where in the world you’re reading from… In honesty I couldn’t think of a way to make this any more genre appropriate… So I settled for mangling it beyond all recognition…

And finally, of course. My Soy. Industrial sized tofu. wpid-20150325_160059.jpgNow that’s done, we can get into the methodology at play here. Get a handle on that cryo-spinach and toss it into a frypan with some oil and the lentils. If you want to be real road warrior use engine oil. If you want to be alive by the end of this use canola. It will take a bit for the ice to melt. If you are using non-cryo spinach, you will probably need to throw some water in at this point as well. wpid-20150325_155208.jpgAdd brutalised capsicum. Stir and simmer. Regret nothing. Chop the tofu into smaller chunks and dig shallow graves for it in the mixture so it will fry most effectively. wpid-20150325_160242.jpgGive the interred tofu a bit of a singe so that it can soak up a bit of taste. I will admit that by this point our taste is hovering somewhere between “wilting forest” and “overgrown (ghoul infested?) cemetery”, so I throw in some ground green chilli. Sriracha will do equally well, but you may have noticed I’m angling towards a particular colour scheme for this one. Once its had a chance to cook for a bit, smash the tofu into more manageable chunks. Its at this point that we get industrial on this sorry fusker. wpid-20150325_165528.jpgBlend it down to a paste, and then return it to a mould of your choice. Since I do not have a corporation issue blender I had to do it in a few batches. wpid-20150325_170238.jpgwpid-20150325_173259.jpg So there you have it. As for taste… well, that’s not really what it was designed for. Served over rice it tasted a bit like a barely seasoned salad, though I suppose the “flavour nozzles” we encounter in the fiction are the proposed remedy for that. So; Lessons! First thing I’ll probably do next time is add some colour. Food dye is simple enough, and we get a nice nod to the Paranoia franchise with its colour coded society. As you could probably guess this attempt was meant to be green, but the light brown of the lentils and white of the tofu kind of brought it around to a kind of dull mud. Second, if I’m going to serve this to anybody it will probably need a bit more flavour. Not exactly in line with genre, but if I can get these things tasting better and elegantly packaged then it might have some appeal. Maybe in vending machines. Probably tied to the colour code… yellow would be curry. Green… maybe another kind of curry. Maybe introducing some fried bread products into the mix would allow a richer taste without compromising the basic idea of it… And finally, I think I need some sort of setting agent, but wouldn’t really want to use eggs, try and keep it as non-animal product as possible. This would let it sit happier in a block, and allow us to minimize packaging. Though single use packages are certainly more cyberpunk, I tend to have environmental concerns… I’ll tell you how that pans out. Maybe we can come up with some kind of alternative. So that’s my new cyberpunk recipe for you all. Not perfect, but it’s got potential. wpid-20150327_172548.jpg

On Cyberpunk, the Verge of Vegetarianism, and Schnofu

Over the last two months, I have been having an adventure.

Now its not the traveling the world seeing new places kind of adventure, though that has also been happening. I’m currently in Edinburgh. That may come up again later in the article.

Its also not the looting a tomb and then battling the dragon that for some reason lives twenty floors below ground kind of adventure. Actually that happened too… well, not exactly that, but you get the picture. Lousy gnomes and their magic.

Anyway, this adventure I’ve been on is a culinary one; I’ve been running a little experiment on myself and my very understanding partner, and so far it has been going well.

Over the last two months I have eaten a grand total of five dishes containing meat.

As a bit of background, this is not really what I’m used to. Growing up in Australia, you tend to find yourself eating meat with a regularity that would make the people of history, and indeed a number of people in less developed countries, blanch at the extravagance. Admittedly, I’m probably making it sound worse than it is; when I visited Japan, people were surprised that my family and I didn’t eat meat every meal of the day, before proceeding to feed me chicken and salad for breakfast. Anyway, you grow up in a meat eating household in Australia, and from my experience at least you’ll probably have at least one meat dish a day. So this is new to me. I’ve not been, I suppose, a hard core vegetarian, as I know that if I draw an absolute limit for myself I will almost instinctively buck against it through a sense of pure grumpy subversiveness.

Admittedly, this is not the first food experiment I have engaged in, though we might save the stories of Sheep Hearts (and How to Devour Their Courage) and The Strange Case of the Pig’s Head for another time.

Now I personally have struggled a little to put my exact reasoning into words. For the sake of staying succinct, and since nobody else is around to ask questions, I figured I’d do a little interview with myself to try and show this as it is, and not just as a mad experiment that I’ve carried out on my own digestive system.

So… not eating meat huh? You worried about your weight?

Well, not so much. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never much had to worry about my figure, though due to my recent transformation into a windblown drifter I will say that I’m not training as hard as I used to. If I were still doing fifteen hours of Judo a week, I might need the protein. But I don’t think that’s the big reason.

You ran out of money, didn’t you.

No, but there was a moment there between paying some bonds and getting my first paycheck where I was eating a lot of lentils on rice.

Aha! You’re in Scotland! You’ve been driven mad by disgust at the local delicacies.

Well, this is my second time staying in Edinburgh, and on the first run I tried all the stuff that tends to freak out the tourists: The haggis, the black pudding, the various fried iterations of various other foodstuffs… can’t say any of it bothered me all that much. Haggis is really just like any other sausage with a higher oat content, and black pudding tasted no bloodier than the average steak. A few folks I’ve heard complain of “having to think about what their made from”, and the answer, like your steak or (ostensibly) your chicken nuggets, is that their made from bits of dead animals. So they didn’t bother me any more than other meat consumption.

Well if that’s not it, why? Have those animal rights activists finally got to you?

Wow, this projected id is turning out to be a real jerk. This was part of the reasoning. I run into a bit of a contradictory element in my brain here, as I think that empathy for animals is important, but fundamentally I don’t have a problem with people eating them. On a pragmatic level, I know that a healthy human being is valuable enough to justify the sacrifice of animals. On the other hand, I’ve yet to see a more striking vision of Hell than a factory farm, so there’s a degree of respect and moderation that I think has to play into it.

And I think that moderation is becoming even more important. As incomes in developing nations grow higher, more people are demanding a piece of that meat-rich Western diet. And given the amount of energy it actually takes to produce meat, then the Human race is going to wind up shooting itself in the foot one way or another. My guess is through either over-exploitation of resources or an antibiotic resistant epidemic that grows out of some very short term focused factory farming practices.

Wait… this is going to become one of your apocalypse rants isn’t it?

Not this time, actually. Of all things, this time it comes back to Shadowrun.

You’re kidding right?

Well, maybe its not the main thing, but it is one of the biggies. Now for those who aren’t familiar with Shadowrun, and don’t feel like tabbing over to Wikipedia, its a weird sort of cyberpunk/fantasy rpg. The kind of setting in which the statement “Cybernetically enhanced Ork wizard and punk rocker” can actually make sense. Its not a fictional world without its problematic content, but one of the things that struck me was the setting’s take on the food we will be eating in sixty years time.

Everything is soy.

Due to a combination of population pressure and lack of viable arable land, meat consumption has become non-viable for the vast majority of the population. To quote “tofu is to our dinners what chicken was in the twentieth century” (Shadowrun 5th Ed. pg 41). And this is an idea that intrigued me.  So, driven in part by wanting to kick the decadence of the Western diet in the face, and in part by wanting to see what I could achieve in this meat free culinary field, I basically got started on a Cyberpunk Diet.

Cyberpunk diet? That’s the stupidest-

Alright, I’m going to dismiss the interview id now. Anyway, I decided that I’d try to make this cyberpunk themed diet viable, in part due to curiosity, and in part because I have faith in Humanity’s capacity to dig its own grave and in ten years time maybe this will be all we have to eat.

So, the following is my experiment to see if tofu really can be chicken. And beef, incidentally.

Tofu Katsu Curry (aka Schnofu)

20150115_171239
The drop of the evening. Some of it went into the food.

Now I suspect those who know me will know of my love for Japanese Katsu Curry, which is basically a chicken or pork schnitzel served in curry sauce. Now the sauce is usually made from a curry roux mix on a beef stock base, so that was the first thing I had to work around. I wandered the aisles of the Scotmid, trying to think of the closest thing to beef that I could that didn’t contain meat.

“Red Wine!” came the answer into my brain.

“A reasonable start,” I replied to my brain, “but the sauce already has some white win in it. Might be counter productive.”

“You’re right…” my brain took a moment to consider, “Mushrooms? They’re everybody’s favourite carnivorous micro-tree!”

“Now we’re talking,” I thought, and started loading up on closed cap white mushrooms.

With my wine, onions, carrots, mushrooms and tofu slab in hand, I returned to the flat.

The Cooking

20150115_171442
Look kinda like cheese doesn’t it?

Slab of tofu? Check. Veg and curry roux mix? Check. Wine? Where isn’t there wine… Crystal Castles 1 and 2 cued up as working music? Oh yes.

Lets Neuromance the hell out of this.

So, I sliced the tofu and fried it in some oil, garlic, salt and pepper so that it would hold its shape a bit better. Turns out this slab was pretty firm anyway, so it wasn’t too hard. The heel of the slab got chopped up and went into the sauce to help the mushrooms pretend to be beef.

20150115_172402
The Schnitzel line, a proud tradition of my people.

After letting it cool a moment, I coated the tofu in flour, eggs and then finally breadcrumbs, and fried it to a golden brown and slightly burnt finish. Because as it turns out you need to pay attention to these things.

As for the sauce, dead simple. Chop and fry mushrooms and onions, add curry roux mix (available from all the East Asian grocery shops I’ve been to), wine and water, hoik in spare tofu and some chopped carrots and we are golden.

20150115_183354
The sauce in all it’s bubbling glory!

So that was pretty much that. If I could have Takeshi Kaga maybe shout something at this point that would be great.

The Verdict

I think it turned out pretty nicely. I hear that snarky Interview Id sneaking back to accuse me of not having a sense of taste and thus not being fit to judge these things, but screw that guy. I subjected a number of the people I live with to the result, and the feedback was generally positive. Tasted just like chicken schnitzel to me, which makes me wonder if I was just tasting oily breadcrumbs and protein all along.

20150115_183334
The resulting Schnofu

Not long ago I also made a Chilli Con Tofu, but I feel like that’s a story for another time. The feedback on that one I believe was something to the effect of “could have used some salami”, so maybe further experimentation is required…

So that was that. Happy Soy Food everybody.

20150115_185318
The finished product. I might have eaten some of it. And it is sitting on my laptop. Because I’m a professional that way.