A strange thing happened to me at school today - actually, it wasn't a very rare sort of event, but it seemed strange nonetheless.
I was attempting to register for a seminar course, and had already met with the instructor. The registration system required that I have the instructor's "consent" to enroll. I emailed the instructor about this, and he instructed me to email his department's secretary, who would grant me permission to enroll through her computer system.
I forwarded his reply to her, adding that I would, indeed like to be enrolled in this course and informing her of my student number. Student numbers in my school are printed on our ID cards in the format "1234 5678" with an underline underneath (I would render that in HTML, but I don't seem to have the tag available). I mailed the number to her in the format 1234-5678.
She replied later, with the following message:
I'm very overworked right now. Please check your student ID# and replace the "-"
I showed this reply to a few of my classmates, who found it quite humorous. They attributed it to a cranky bureaucrat - an incompetant, lazy woman who'd rather bang out an snippy reply than remove one single "-" from a student number. However, it occurred to me that were the style of the message altered slightly, while leaving the content intact, they would have a totally different hypothesis as to the message's origin:
Device or resource busy. Syntax error. Invalid character "-"
If they saw this message, they would assume that it had been sent by a computer. Yet the difference between this and the actual message is only superficial!
I don't seriously think that I was dealing with a computer. After all, computers don't usually have names like "Wilma Jean" on their email accounts. Besides, the instructor of the course would probably not refer to a computer as a "secretary" - he'd call it a "system" or something.
This is a strange situation. I'm assuming that there was a human at the other end, but only because of the choice of words in the message and the name of my correspondent. Still, I don't really know if it was a human or not, which makes me wonder if our machines have passed Turing's Test already. Am I the only one who feels this way?
Perhaps Turing's Test can be passed a different way then Turing himself thought it would be. He might have intended machines to improve in language parsing and logical processing thereof until they could appear to be perfectly normal people over a text connection.
But maybe - we've grown so accustomed, so subservient to our computer systems, so used to "Push 1 on your telephone ... now! beep" - that we've become like them. Maybe, the more we use these things, the more we become incapable of communicating - or behaving! - like the humans we would like to be. And eventually, we can't tell whether we're talking to other people or to computers - or we just won't care.
After all, the hypothetical woman "Wilma Jean" was only doing her job. She tried to input the number, the computer spat out an error, and she relayed her frustration with the machine back to me. She may think of the computer as her enemy, she may resent people like me forcing her to use it, but the more she fights against it, the more she becomes indistinguishable from it.
When I can't tell Wilma's computer from Wilma herself, it has passed Turing's Test and become intelligent.