The Turing Test as Gender Discrimination

I jumped into discussion of a comment by Greg Laden on Facebook that touched on the Turing test.

There was a comment by Dan Fincke that got me interested:

indeed, at this point I’m generally more impressed when I’m convinced a girl talking to me online is NOT a robot

My reply:


Ironically enough, the Turing test as presented by Turing in his famous paper is not as generic as most people think. A male observer compares the conversation coming from a female correspondent and a program, and is supposed to pick out which is the female. So your comment fits right into Turing’s original test conditions.

One can speculate that Turing’s own gender identity issues had something to do with him casting it in that way. The difference between the somewhat-mysterious other gender and a program trying to imitate a female may have been considered by Turing as a more difficult for a male observer, and thus a slightly lower bar as a sufficient criterion for intelligence in a computer program. Or it could be that he just forgot to clarify that the imitation game with the computer involved could be gender-neutral if we wanted to do so.

Greg Laden jumped back into the discussion:

Dan, given a recent conversation on facebook, I’m impressed when a girl talking to me on line is NOT some guy who is pretending to be a girl but really looks like ZZ Top.

Wesley, interesting. I think but I could be wrong, that most of the first order (or should I say first generation) descriptions of the Turin test do not say that. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read the original (I think the first place I saw it was in something written by Gardner).

And my response:

Greg, you are right that most descriptions of the Turing test after Turing are phrased more generically. In the original paper, Turing says:

The new form of the problem can be described’ in terms of a game which we call the ‘imitation game’. It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either ‘X is A and Y is B’ or ‘X is B and Y is A’. The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus:

C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair?

Now suppose X is actually A, then A must answer. It is A’s {p.434}object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification. His answer might therefore be

‘My hair is shingled, and the longest strands, are about nine inches long.’

In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary. The object of the game for the third player (B) is to help the interrogator. The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers. She can add such things as ‘I am the woman, don’t listen to him!’ to her answers, but it will avail nothing as the man can make similar remarks.

We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines think?’

Turing does himself later refer to the conditions of the game he introduced more generically, which probably licenses everybody else to treat the test as gender-neutral.

It might be urged that when playing the ‘imitation game’ the best strategy for the machine may possibly be something other than imitation of the behaviour of a man. This may be, but I think it is unlikely that there is any great effect of this kind. In any case there is no intention to investigate here the theory of the game, and it will be assumed that the best strategy is to try to provide answers that would naturally be given by a man.

But I still find it interesting that Turing’s explicit description of the “imitation game” is a *gender-discrimination* test, even with the computer in play.

(I’ll note here that my recall of the original did not include the note that the observer could be either male or female, and that vitiates part of my speculation from the first comment I made above.)

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

2 thoughts on “The Turing Test as Gender Discrimination

  • 2011/02/21 at 3:03 am

    I whant information of gender test.

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