Humans vs Bots

Reflections on Technology and Self

“‘You engage in an exchange of emails or instant messages or Facebook updates. Is the unknown respondent another person, or is it a bot? Is it someone, or is it a computer program passing as a person? You want to know. Based only on the conversation, can you judge whether the other is human or machine? Is there something in what is said or how it is said that differentiates people from programs?’ (Baldwin, 2009, p. 8-9)

Film director Ridley Scott’s sci fi masterpiece ‘Blade Runner‘, based on Phillip Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘, asks some pressing questions on what it means to be human, and whether we can really distinguish the difference between man and machine. The protagonist Deckard, uses a process called the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test to decide whether the subject is a ‘replicant’ or not. This is based on what we humans call a ‘turing test’, which was introduced by Alan Turing in 1950 to probe the abilities of machines to ‘imitate’ human responses. If a human is unable to discriminate between a person and a machine, then the computer is said to have passed the test. For example, a man is asked to play a game of chess against both a human and a machine, it is very difficult for him to tell which opponent is which, as the machine has a large database of moves it can make which mirror those of real human players; therefore even if the human beats the machine, the machine wins. So in a nutshell, a turing test is a test a human gives to a computer to decide whether or not it is a human, while a reverse turing test is a test a computer gives to a human to determine whether or not it is a machine.


There’s no doubt in my mind that you have seen these before. I can assume this because if you happen to have stumbled upon this blog, you must have some experience in navigating yourself in the vast internet, and would have definitely at some stage have had to prove your human identity to your computer. CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, and is a reverse turing test, which means it is designed to make it impossible for computers to pass; they always lose, and we always win… well not always. The purpose of CAPTCHA is to act as an anti-spam device which filters bots from filling out forms and logging in to social networking sites and forums; it ‘proves you are who you are by making a challenge that forces you to manifest a response that only you (as a human) can have’ (Baldwin, 2009, p. 6)

To my knowledge, this is one of the only reverse turing tests available, and that is quite frightening when you nurse the thought that there are more ways to make computers indistinguishable from humans than there are to make it obvious who is wires and who is flesh. Surely we could just ask a computer ‘what is love?’, and the thing might explode, it certainly won’t be able to answer the question, but then again humans can’t really answer that question either. Therefore, it can be argued that a computer essentially has the same capacity to define ambiguous and intangible concepts as we do. However, not up for argument is that ‘computers look up information faster and with far greater resources than humans‘ (Baldwin, 2009, p. 6), and can bypass most security systems with brute force by quickly generating logical answers. So you can start to imagine why it is necessary to be able to stop a computer dead in it’s tracks, shine a light on it and exclaim proudly “you’re not a human, you’re a machine!”.

One of the greatest paradoxes of CAPTCHA and reverse turing tests ‘is that the computer running it must know the answer to the puzzle, since it must be able to look up the answer in order to evaluate the test. In short, CAPTCHA generates and grades a test that itself cannot pass‘ (Baldwin, 2009, p. 6). It is alarming that we are often required to pass a computer generated test to identify ourselves as humans, yet we are at the same time being graded by the very computers that are not supposed to be able to pass the test! Is this some sort of big online joke, are our computers really laughing at us each time we ‘log into’, or to borrow from The Matrix, ‘jack into’ them? And what do you think your success rate is when doing these CAPTCHA tests? I’m not afraid to admit that I often have to frustratingly do the test 2 or 3 times before I get it right, because I can’t tell if the letter at the end is an l or an i. ‘Inversely, and paradoxically, humans can take the test and not pass but always make the grade, that is, we continue to be human even if we do not pass. What would it mean for us to fail the test? Can we fail to be human? What unsurmountable and unfailing quality is always there? (Baldwin, 2009, p. 6)

How can we tell that we are not machines if we cannot even pass tests with 100% accuracy that are designed to tell us apart? Obviously this sentence is starting to branch out into Matrix territory and the ‘simulation argument’ which I don’t want to absorb myself into right now, after all I have shit to do. But it is still necessary to ask the question, as a question paints a thousand answers. We call the internet – which we use regularly throughout our human life – the web. A web is an intricately designed natural phenomenon that spiders weave to call their home. It is organic and occurs independently of humans, or computers. Yet we have come to associate the internet with this word of opposite meaning. The internet, is far from being natural like a web, yet we have become sensitised to think that it is, we believe that the web is a beautiful network weaved effortlessly by people, but in fact it is the computers that create this ‘web’, we are merely caught in it. The real web, is more a wireframe, a computerised tangle of bots and code and programming. Bots called ‘spiders’ (that is actually what they’re called) crawl the net looking for and organising data for search engines such as Google, and create the web that we ‘surf’ on.

ghost in the shell

How detached have we become from what we are actually doing? It might be silly to question whether we are androids or not, because we are obviously made of flesh and bone, but if we spend a majority of our life plugged into the internet, then how much of our human identity is left intact? Using myself as an example, I have a blog, a Facebook profile and a Myspace profile that I never got around to deleting, I also have two computers, three external hard drives, god knows how many USBs and SD cards, and a bunch of CD’s. I can’t tell you how much of my memory is organic and susceptible to loss and change over time, and how much of it is digital and wired into the many electronic devices which I use as an extension of my physical self.

The simple act of writing in a blog is nothing more than me attempting to piece together and organise my thoughts and memories by uploading them onto the internet, so that one day I can stand back and look at the tiny screen in front of me with pride and say to myself, ‘that is me, all of my years of life experiences and interests and passions, conveniently tucked away and stored on a tiny kernel of the internet’. In essence, by using the internet (especially social networking sites such as Facebook) we are designing an artificial version of ourselves, by uploading ourselves into an electronic existence through our words and images of ourselves and others. We live in a new world, a world where if you don’t own a computer or a mobile phone you are considered a minority, where our money is displayed as numbers on a screen with the rise of online banking, and where almost everyone has a virtual image of themselves uploaded onto Facebook, which never sleeps and is always connected even when you are not; serving to keep you in constant electronic existence and transmit the message: “here are some pictures of me, these are my friends, these are my favourite movies and books, this is the school I went to, this is my job and these are some of my private thoughts and opinions – this is me”.

The questions I ask, are: do we risk integrating ourselves too deeply into the technology we created? Will a line ever be drawn, or is the process of self-integration rather than self-acualisation only reaching turbo speeds of x gigabytes a second – faster than the speed of light. How is the concept of ‘I’ or ‘me’ being shaped, and what is going to be the result for the human species and our collective identity as we know it, or knew it? And finally, what future lies ahead for the machines that we use so often in our daily lives? I believe that our world, and the world of science fiction are slowly colliding; it is very possible that we will one day find ourselves in a Videodrome situation, where the line which distinguishes man from machine will dissolve and disintegrate until we do not know who we really are – we will become the ‘new flesh’.