Thinking machines go pop

I take the view that computer languages, robot ethics, method acting, and biomechanics are the main ingredients that fused, in the 1950s, to become the cultural meme we call Artificial Intelligence, or AI for short. None of those ingredients was wholly new at that time: biomechanics and the Method – first known as the Stanislavski system – had been around since the early 1920s; Isaac Asimov, in conjunction with science fiction author and editor John W. Campbell, formulated the Laws of Robotics in 1940 (t’was about time, too – Jaques de Vaucanson had had the first mecha working in 1737); Ada Lovelace had anticipated the development of computer software, artificial intelligence and computer music back in 1843. But in the 1950s, thinking machines went pop. —Dirk ScherungThinking machines go pop (Robot Soul)

I’ve had only the most basic training in acting, and no formal training in artificial intelligence. It’s been productive in the classroom to apply what I do know about those topics to certain works of literature (such as Galatea 2.2, PICK UP AXE, or R.U.R.). But I’m very interested in what Scherung might find as he continues to explore this meme. Hurrah for yet another bridge across the cultural divide.

I’m particularly puzzled by the suggestion that the man pretending to be a woman in a Turing test is drawing on the same store of creativity that a method actor would use. A method actor draws on his or her own specific personal memories in order to find emotional depth that fills out the spaces in between the words the playwright wrote about the character. I can see how the attention to the construction of a character contributes to the spread of the AI meme, but I don’t know that method acting contains any truths that would be useful to the AI community.

As a homosexual, perhaps Turing was able to draw on his personal experience of gender roles to concoct the gender-bending experiment. But how does this relate to method acting? The specialized acting skills of the drag queen are campy and farcical, not offering the sort of psychological depth and individuality associated with the plays written for method acting.

You need a certain kind of physical space for method acting, and only certain kinds of plays lend themselves to method acting. The tastes of the playgoing public, the talents and accomplishments of playwrights, and the performing styles of actors are all interconnected.

Drama expresses universal themes, but it does so through unique, individual characters. I’ve raised this topic on this blog before (and when I did, I don’t think I convinced Will). But here goes… Computer programming in general is about abstraction. A program that accurately simulates the actions of a man pretending to be a woman would probably have more hard-coded, specialized features than a program that could accurately simulate general human behavior. But isn’t it specific human actions, in specific contexts, that make dramatic interest? Is human behavior, taken in general, ever that dramatic?

If I weren’t sick, and I had the time, I’d check to see how much of this has been covered by Brenda Laurel, or by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern.

Oh, and of course I’d suggest that Rossum’s Robots be added to the list of artificial intelligence precursors. RUR was tremendously popular in its time. It also popularized the word “robot” in languages around the world.