Turing Tests


The Turing Test is a test of a machine’s ability to mimic human words and conversation, and is supposedly a test of whether the machine is truly intelligent. A person converses with something, usually in text, where they can’t tell if the something is a machine or a human. If the machine can’t reliably be distinguished from the human, then the machine passes the Turing test.

I have had people try to give me Turing tests, as if I were a machine. People have tried to employ trick questions to see if I am really the person writing what I write. People have done this to me in person, where the vast majority of the time the fact that I am, mechanically, the one doing the writing, is indisputable.

When this happens, I find it insulting. I find it annoying. But I am in a situation where, at present, nobody is going to take my keyboard away if I don’t pass the Turing test. Nobody is going to deny me an ability to communicate in words. Nobody is going to force me to revert to life without a viable communication system. And if they did try, I have people on my side who would fight them to the bitter end.

Nonetheless, there have been situations that have filled me with terror. Situations in which I have been unable to communicate in words, and other people have been unable to help me communicate in words, and in which horrible, potentially life-threatening decisions were being made about me. (Remember, I have anaphylactic reactions to several neuroleptics, and neuroleptics are the drug of choice in “calming” auties.) Situations in which I was being mistreated and had no way to tell anyone for years to come. Situations in which my communication devices were denied to me.

I also know what it is like to be evaluated by outsiders. Evaluation is a nerve-wracking process, when you know that your life may depend on the outcome. It is being dissected, with little pins put in you, and people making wrong statements about your insides while listening to their instruments more than they listen to you. If you want to horrify me, schedule me for an evaluation. It’s dehumanizing and the stakes are very high.

What I stand to lose if an evaluation goes wrong, is services. The services do keep me alive. But at the moment, I don’t stand to lose a communication system if an evaluation goes wrong.

There are a number of ways in which it seems, from an unemotional standpoint, to make sense to test someone to find out if they are really communicating. Obviously, the reasoning goes, if they were really communicating, they’d cooperate fully with the test and that would be the end of it.

Have you ever had a test on which something incredibly valuable — your life, your ability to communicate — depended? Would you perform as well on such a test as you would normally? Would you flub answers? What if you lacked confidence in whatever you were being tested in? Would you seek answers in any way you could, doubt your own answers?

Human beings are not unemotional creatures. When the stakes are so high, we become terrified. When people insist on believing we are someone we are not, in ways that have bearing on those high stakes, we feel insulted. Our reactions, when terrified, offended, or insulted, are not necessarily going to be the reactions of someone who is detached from the situation.

Anne McDonald, a woman with cerebral palsy who used facilitated communication starting decades ago, was asked by a court to participate in message-passing tests. McDonald had grown up in an institution. She had learned institutional survival skills there. And she was insulted by the testing. Everything in her told her not to cooperate with the tests. She finally did cooperate, and was proven to be the one really typing, but she held out to the last second.

Many people who use alternative communication, or facilitated communication, have institutional survival skills. Many have little experience of being treated as communication partners rather than as moving objects. Many have little experience of being believed in as who they are. Many find the entire act of communicating in words quite difficult. Many have motor or perceptual skills that are significantly affected by fear. Many have little confidence in often-newfound ways of communicating in words. And many have been in situations where others have always been “right” and they have always been “wrong”.

Now imagine you’ve spent ten, twenty, thirty, or even more years of your life unable to communicate in words. And you’ve started to, and this has become really important to you. And someone gives you a test. Where tests have historically meant not only things you’ve “failed”, but things (such as IQ tests) that have made a big impact on your life. And if you fail this one, it means you will possibly never get a chance to type again.

I’d just like to know how many people, in that situation, would find it easy to pass such a test, and how many people, in that situation, would not find it tempting to look for answers from the person assisting you with taking it.

I know that it is very easy to say that all of this is easy, that I’m just grasping at straws here, that this couldn’t be what’s going on, and so forth. But I’ve been in situations where testing means a big chunk of my life could be taken away, and I’ve also been in situations where people tried to informally test whether I could really type or not. And that is how I respond to these situations, even though in all other situations I’m a fairly self-confident person with communication skills that are easily verifiable: I try to look as cooperative as I can. I balk at what would normally be very easy questions. I look around for other people’s answers, and trust them over my own. And then I go home reduced to a nervous wreck for days, feeling like I’ve just been violated, insulted, and misjudged at the same time, but aware that now a lot rests on how other people see me in a 30-minute high-stakes period, rather than how I see myself every day.

I hate that a professional view of me is thought more reliable than my view or the view of people close to me. I often repeat the “safer” view of another person who is considered more credible than I am, and sometimes I doubt my own credibility even though it has been shown to be very high. I end up thinking, in those situations, that everyone else but me must be right about me. And as I said, the rest of the time my self-confidence is pretty good. A friend has described this as, “Okay, you’re spending all this time with someone you know to be intelligent, dynamic, and interesting, and then you put her in a room with a few staff and she turns into this passive lump.”

But I rarely use physical support to type, and when I do, I can always later confirm or deny what I’ve said with obviously-independent typing.

Some people claim that after appearances before massive audiences and stuff this shouldn’t be hard — I’ll tell you, presenting or speaking in front of a large audience is hard, being dissected in high-stakes situations is several orders of magnitude harder. Using physical support during a relatively high-stakes hearing recently was also much more difficult than giving a presentation, but the people involved had already seen me type without support so my worries about their view of my ability to type turned out to be unfounded, if ever-present. I’d rather humiliate myself in front of a hostile audience than be subject to certain kinds of scrutiny in high-stakes situations.

There are of course a lot of people who manage to do the message-passing thing, and pass these sorts of tests. Sharisa Kochmeister and Anne McDonald both had to pass them for court cases, but both struggled a great deal to do so. Sandra Radisch describes telling people very specific information unknown to her facilitators. Eugene Marcus had to practice over and over again to do it, and the result of his practice made it into a book. Many people have learned to type independently to refute claims that they are not typing.

But when people don’t pass what amount to Turing tests, it should not be automatically assumed that the reason is because they are not capable of writing. This can have potentially devastating consequences, and it is partly those consequences that make it so terrifying in the first place.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

4 responses »

  1. I think of my favorite Melville story, “Billy Budd.” Freezing up and being unable to communicate effectively in stressful social situations can happen even to “normal” people, and is much more stressful for those of us who are less socially facile. No wonder Billy clocked Taggart good and hard. It must be godawful for you to be thought mad for resisting horrible degrading dangerous insults.

  2. I’m reminded of one assessment where the person carrying it out picked up a book lying next to me (without asking my permission) that I had been reading when she arrived. Sceptically, she asked, “Were you really reading this?” I typed “Yes”. She started flicking through it and quizzing me – “Do you understand all of the words? Can you tell me what “transformative” means?” Eventually I became angry and overloaded and refused to type at all, thus failing her Turing test. She probably believed that it was because I really didn’t understand, rather than that I found the questioning degrading in the same way that the average person would.

    And then aside from the insulting nature of the whole thing, there’s the anxiety about high-stakes performing that you mentioned. A lot of people who are very good at a certain subject do badly in structured exams for that subject for the same reason. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t answer the questions, just that they have trouble answering the questions in that particular environment.

  3. That reminds me of the professional who told me I was “incredibly intelligent” because I used the word “legible”.

    I also do tend to often shut up when tested in really demeaning ways.

  4. I can think of an example of a person being “tested”. The staff requested that the professional doing the “testing” ask the client a question that the staff would have no way of knowing. The “professional” then asked ” when is your birthday”. staff response ” I know that”. next question “when were you born?” (isnt that the same thing ???) response -thats the same question and I know that” then the client was asked “what is your uncles name” (Finally we are getting somewhere!) client wrote something down. Whereupon the “professional” went out and asked “Does she/he have an uncle?” hmmm if YOU dont know this person has an uncle why are you asking his name?? Then spent the next hour explaining that this individual had no frontal brain function and therefore couldnt communicate.
    My opinion -the professional couldnt deal with the fact that an individual that had been “tested” might have been playing him for a fool.

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