Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Saussure and the Answering Machine

or, how to (over)compensate for lack of theory by using quizzer fundas instead, in doing assignments.


When confronted by voice mail messaging services and telephone answering machines, my mother, prefers to hang up. I don’t talk to machines, she says.

Her discomfort reminds me of the Turing Test, the radical hypothesis to test machine intelligence put forth by Alan Turing in his seminal 1950 paper, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’[1]. In this paper, to be crude and reductive, Turing asserted that if a human judge in conversation with a human being and a machine could not reliably tell them apart, then the machine could be considered, for all practical purposes, to be a thinking entity. The Turing Test started a still ongoing intellectual debate, as well as a popular social and cultural concern about the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence, and what such a possibility would mean for the question of ‘being human’.

The questions of language, and speech, are central to these anxieties, reflected in my mother’s refusal to ‘talk to’ machines. Of course, the original Turing test was never meant to be a test of speech at all.

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.’[2]

To try and express this in terms of Saussure’s work - In Turing’s original hypothesis, a computer with a large enough database can acquire language (langue), if we think of langue as ‘the sum of word images stored in the minds of all individuals’[3], as a collective social fact. The machine could come up with adequate responses to most questions, because they would be expressed in syntagms, ‘pat phrases’[4] of standard usage present in the depository of language. (Saussure considers sentences, with their infinite variety, to belong to the realm of speaking (Parole) rather than language.[5] In fact the modern networked computer system as a depository could be (and is) the material manifestation of langue as the collective social fact. But even in Turing’s radical hypothesis, which rubbished both theology and the claims of exclusive human consciousness, the act of Speaking is still, perhaps unwittingly, the domain of the ‘human’ subject...



[1] A. M. Turing (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind 49: 433-460.

[2] From Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Text quoted from the website http://cogprints.org/499/00/turing.html

[3] Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. Pg. 13

[4] Saussure, 124

[5] Ibid. 124

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