What Would Alan Turing Say About AI Chatbots?

A few years ago I wrote on another site about something called Google Duplex that was being described as the world’s most lifelike chatbot. It could carry out natural conversations by mimicking a human voice. This “assistant” could autonomously complete tasks such as calling to book an appointment, making a restaurant reservation, or calling the library to verify their hours. Duplex can complete most tasks autonomously, it can also recognize situations that it is unable to complete and then signal a human operator to finish the task. Duplex speaks in a more natural voice and language by incorporating “speech disfluencies” such as filler words like “hmm” and “uh” and using common phrases such as “mhm” and “gotcha.” It also is programmed to use a more human-like intonation and response latency.

Was this a wonderful advancement in AI and language processing? Perhaps, but it also met with criticism. Since last December, there has been a lot of press in academic communities and then in the mainstream press about AI chatbots that are open to anyone to use. It’s hard to keep up with all of them but ChatGPT is the one that gets the most attention. You can read more about that on my other edtech blog if that interests you, but on a simpler level, one thing that I thought of was the Turing Test.

You may know the amazing and ultimately tragic story of Alan Turing because of the excellent film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan. He is sometimes considered to be the Father of AI. He is remembered for developing the computer that broke the German Enigma code during World War II when he was the cryptanalyst at the Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England.

Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park depicts him sitting at an ENIGMA ciphering machine

Developed by Alan Turing in 1950, it is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. For example, when communicating with a machine via speech or text, can the human tell that the other participant is a machine? If the human can’t tell that the interaction is with a machine, the machine passes the Turing Test.

Should a machine have to tell you if it’s a machine? After the Duplex announcement, people started posting concerns about the ethical and societal questions of this use of artificial intelligence.

Privacy — a real hot-button issue right now — is another concern. Your conversations with Chatbots are recorded in order for the virtual assistant to analyze and respond and “learn.” A few years ago, Microsoft purchased a company called Semantic Machines for its “conversational AI.” That is their term for computers that sound and respond like humans.

You might have some of this technology in your home or in your hand. Digital assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Bixby on Samsung are AI that will talk to you with varying success. I do ask Alexa about the weather and local traffic daily. I sometimes ask Siri for directions when I’m hands-free in my car.

Would Alan want a Turing test that could tell us that we are talking to a machine? In that case, a failed reverse-Turing test result is what we would want to tell us that we are dealing with a machine and not a human. That is something some educators want: something to tell them that what a student turned in was written by a bot. There are people working on such things now.

Many educators at all grade levels from elementary to graduate school have been concerned about AI writing papers for students. The results have been mixed. I recently tried testing out ChatGPT for some assignments and found it gave some reasonable starting places but certainly would never get a good grade from me.

These AI tools are not meant to replace humans but to carry out very specific tasks. That doesn’t mean that that might replace humans at some point in the future for some things. For example, they aren’t meant to replace a doctor or therapist, but people are asking them those kinds of questions. Let’s hope the answers are accurate. If a bot can book a table at that restaurant for you or help you with a support issue about your computer, phone, bank or service that prevents you from being on hold for a half hour, I’m okay with that.

There is what is known as an “uncanny valley” for AI, especially for those that use a human voice or look like a human, such as humanoid robots and even online animation. That valley is where things get too close to being human and we feel like we are in the “creepy treehouse in the uncanny valley.”

I think Turing would be fascinated by this new AI which he had basically predicted. I don’t know how he would feel about the ethics of its use, but based o his Turing test I think he would certainly want ways of letting us know that we were interacting with AI rather than a human.

Will this technology be misused? Absolutely. That always happens, no matter how much testing is done. Should we move forward with the research? Well, no one is asking for my approval, but I say Yes.

A taste of the film and Turing’s story.

A Dude and A Zen Master

The Dude
Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski

You know The Dude, right? Maybe you know him as His Dudeness or Duder or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. But don’t call him Lebowkski. Maybe you can call him Jeff Bridges.

The Big Lebowski is a 1998 film that didn’t do very well when it was released but has achieved cult status since. It’s a comedy with some film noir elements. It was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Jeff Bridges stars as Jeff Lebowski, known as The Dude. He is an unemployed Los Angeles slacker who loves to bowl.

The film’s conflict occurs when he is a victim of mistaken identity. Some kidnappers mistake him for a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski whose trophy wife has been taken.

Mr. Lebowski signs on The Dude to deliver the ransom to secure her release. This possibly easy-money job falls apart because The Dude’s friend Walter (John Goodman) decides that they can keep the ransom and dupe the kidnappers.

Joel Coen has said that he wanted to do a Raymond Chandler kind of film noir mystery. It reminds me the most of two of Chandler’s novels –  The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep.  It feels like those stories because of its episodic, ridiculously complicated plot, oddball L.A. characters, and ongoing attempts to solve the mystery. The mystery itself might not be the kidnapping plot as much as figuring out why two thugs working for Jackie Treehorn beat up The Dude and urinated on his rug.

An even bigger influence may have been the film versions of those two novels.  I’m thinking that the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum more than the classic Bogie and Bacall film may have been an influence. And The Long Goodbye remake with Elliot Gould which was directed by Robert Altman feels even closer to the contemporary Los Angeles of Lebowski.

ThisBut here is a leap – the film has been embraced by some Zen practitioners. It’s not the first odd film that has been seen to have a higher spiritual meaning. I already wrote about “The Zen of Groundhog Day” and there is a scene in that film where Phil, who is stuck in a time loop of repeating the same Groundhog Day over and over, is in a Lebowski-ish bowling alley. He asks two bowlers drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.” And The Dude might agree. And be quite happy with that loop.

Groundhog Day didn’t come from Zen Buddhist roots. The original idea for the story supposedly was The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom), a book by Friedrich Nietzsche in which the author gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again. Some Buddhists and others embraced the modern-day reincarnation and karma story of  Groundhog Day and Phil’s journey to reach an understanding of what he is meant to do with his life.

The Big Lebowski, 10th Anniversary Limited Edition DVD comes in a bowling ball

At least one Zen Master, Bernie Glassman, saw Zen in The Dude. He is a friend and teacher of Jeff Bridges and now they have written a book together, appropriately titled The Dude and the Zen Master.

Glassman is a well-known Zen teacher. His book Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen is based on workshops he gave as Abbot of the Zen Community of New York. He had been an applied mathematician and aerospace engineer and sometimes works examples of science into his conversation.

In his approach to enlightenment, you will not reach it by doing Zen. But when you are enlightened, then you will be doing Zen.

If that circular reasoning (or path that is an “Infinite Circle”) sounds like a Zen koan, it is intentional. Their new book actually looks for the koans within the film. And, yes, the idea that the film was made by the Coen (Koan?) brothers is mentioned. Glassman is certainly well-versed in these teaching stories. He wrote the foreword to The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans.

If it wasn’t for Glassman’s other work, you might toss off this book’s approach to the film and Zen as a joke. Certainly, there is some levity in the book. It has chapters with titles like “The Dude is Not In,” and  “Sorry, I Wasn’t Listening,”

So what does it mean in Zen terms to be like the Dude when “The Dude abides?”  We abide, as in “lives”, in a place and a time. We also abide in the sense of “approve.” We abide in the sense of “obey.” But The Dude is “not in” and he does not approve of much of what happens and he certainly does not abide by the rules. The Dude is not here.

The book came out of ten years of conversations and one intense week of recorded conversations for the book. It also certainly has some intention to introduce us to their Zen work in the world. Glassman has Zen Peacemakers. Jeff Bridges has his End Hunger Network.

So, is this really a kind of Buddhism, or is it more of Dudeism? Well, actually, Dudeism, is an online religion devoted largely to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of The Dude that was founded in 2005. It is also known as The Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the organization has ordained over 150,000 “Dudeist Priests” all over the world via its website.

In The Dude and the Zen Master, the dialogue is pretty wide-ranging from Zen and the movies to the importance of simply doing good in a complicated world.

Bridges and Glassman

One thing that The Dude does is that he is there. That is a lesson Bridges learned from his father, another actor.  It is important to show up. In Zen, that matters. Showing up.

Glassman says in the book that “Trillions of years of DNA, the flow of the entire universe all lead up to this moment. So what do you do? You just do.”

In Buddhism, that translates as the difficult part of daily practice.

Glassman, who is the voice of knowledge in the book to Bridges’s experiences, also compares The Dude to Lamed-Vavnik who is one of the men in Jewish mysticism who “are simple and unassuming, and so good that, on account of them, God lets the world go on.”

The Dude is not a trained  Zen Master. He is an intuitive Zen Master. The Dude will always prefer to hug it out than slug it out. “I dig the Dude,” says Bridges in the book. “He is very authentic. He can be angry and upset, but he’s very comfortable in his own skin. And in his inimitable way, he has grace.”

Jeff Bridges brings a lot of his insights from his acting work to the Zen table.  Are we all actors wearing masks? Can we live in the moment of a “scene” without being consumed by the character we are playing?

If you want to throw the Big Questions net even wider than the Coen brothers’ one Lebowski philosophy, there is a book for you that goes into 13 more of their films. The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers by Cathleen Falsani looks at the big subjects of their films. Want to examine the nature of evil? Watch No Country for Old Men. Seeing their films as their own moral universe doesn’t really seem so outrageous.

Being present and abiding seems to mean taking the world for what it is. Suffering comes from desire but it also comes from trying to push the world away or expecting it to be different without your own action.

Maybe we all need to abide.

The Dude and The Stranger (Sam Elliott) at the bowling alley (spoiler alert) at the end of the film.

Four Gods


I once read about a survey that polled Americans about their beliefs in God, including God’s characteristics and behavior. The idea was to analyze the results and determine how engaged in the world Americans believed God to be and whether or not they thought God was angry at humanity’s sins. Their conclusions were that Americans tended to believe in one of four types of God.

The word “God” was used but they allowed that participants might personally use another name, such as Great Spirit, Universe, Allah, Father, deity, the Almighty, the Creator et al. The variety of names shows that there are certainly more than four types.

One is the Authoritarian God who is very involved in people’s daily lives and world affairs. They believe that God will punish those who are unfaithful. This God would be responsible for economic downturns and natural disasters. Is that your God?

Maybe you believe in the Benevolent God who is involved in our daily lives, but is not angry or wrathful and is mostly a positive force. Sounds very nice.

Some people believe in a Critical God. This God observes the world and is unhappy with it, but does not get involved in our daily affairs. Maybe divine justice doesn’t happen in this world.

The fourth view of God is a Distant God who is not involved in the world and is not angry. This God is a cosmic force that sets the law of nature in motion.

Of course, you might not believe in any God or hang out with all the college kids in the agnostics lounge.

I have identified for quite a long time as a Deist. I don’t know which of the four Gods is most Deist. Distant in that he (she? they?) chooses not to interact with our lives, but could? Crtitical for his detachment? If you want to give any God credit for good things and miracles, then you also have to attach blame for all the bad things that happen. Very few Benevolent club members do that.

I think that any of the four Gods would be pleased that we are thinking about them.

Between Aptitude and Passion

eye clamp CC

If you have heard of Sir Ken Robinson, it probably is because of his TED talks, especially “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” which makes an entertaining and good case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity. That’s how I first encountered him.  He was a professor of arts education in England and focuses on the development of creativity, innovation, and human resources.

I got to hear him speak in person at an education conference and bought his book that was new then titled The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

In the book’s Foreword, he tells this story:

An elementary school teacher was giving a drawing class to a group of six-year-old children. At the back of the classroom sat a little girl who normally didn’t pay much attention in school. In the drawing class, she did. For more than twenty minutes, the girl sat with her arms curled around her paper, totally absorbed in what she was doing. The teacher found this fascinating. Eventually, she asked the girl what she was drawing. Without looking up, the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”
Surprised, the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.”
The girl said, “They will in a minute.”

The book reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success in its structure. Both contain interviews with successful people and tries to reach some conclusions about how they achieved success. Robinson interviews people who have been successful in the arts, sports, education, and business how they have found in their “Element.”

Now, reading about people like Paul McCartney, The Alchemist author Paulo Coelho and Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons might be interesting and might be inspiring, but the value of the book would have to be whether or not it leads YOU towards your element. These people were able to make a living (as in a salary) from a passion or were able to significantly enrich their lives through their passion. They are “in their element.”

Ah, yes – but how does one find that Element?

One way is to think about what you would do if you could erase the need to make money, and if you could erase any concern for what others thought of you. It’s not helpful if all you can say is “I would just hang out with my friends.” But if the answer is that you would just work in your greenhouse, get back to painting watercolors, volunteer at the animal shelter or write poetry, you might have a start.

Robinson describes the Element in his book as the “meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.”

He talks about the idea of “multiple intelligences”, an idea proposed by Howard Gardner in 1983.

Robinson feels there is a big difference between asking if people are intelligent – as we do with testing – and asking how they are intelligent – which we don’t do very often at all.

So, the Element is a place, a point where the activities you enjoy and are (perhaps, naturally) good at, meet.

Robinson emphasizes the importance of finding a circle of like-minded people with your passion and of mentors. As you would expect with his background, he also talks about reforming and transforming education.

Robinson doesn’t feel that your age and occupation are barriers. But, getting back to that original question to ask yourself, eliminating the need to make a living and being able to reject the opinions of others as you follow your passion is no easy task. Still, the book might be what finally pushes you to see your passion and move toward that point.

TED Talks – Sir Ken Robinson on “Do schools kill creativity?” He makes an entertaining and good case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.



Walkabout refers to a rite of passage where male Australian Aborigines undergo a journey during adolescence and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months. It’s a vision quest taken to extremes.

My introduction to it was through a fill called  Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg. I saw it the year I started college and it really intrigued me.

It follows the journey of a sister and brother who are abandoned in the Australian outback and their meeting with an Aborigine boy who is on his walkabout. Together they journey innocence into experience in the wild.

The film has a cult status these days, but back in the early 1970s very few people I knew had ever heard of it. Of course, I was not alone in having a crush on the unnamed girl in the film played by Jenny Agutter.

The film was unconventional and had almost none of the “plot” that we expect in a film. Years later, I saw a “director’s cut” but by then I had forgotten the details from my original viewing. (A benefit of the aging brain and memory is that you can re-experience things you loved as if they were new again.) The scenes of frontal nudity and realistic, survival hunting scenes seemed perfect in context, but unusual at the time.

So, that film led me to read the original book and several other non-fiction books about the walkabout experience. I even tried once to teach the book to middle school students, but they just didn’t get it.

I loved the idea that the seeker followed “songlines” that their ancestors took. These songlines (or dreaming tracks) of the Indigenous Australians are an ancient cultural concept and motif perpetuated through oral lore and singing and other storytelling dances and paintings.

The songlines are an intricate series of song cycles that identify landmarks and mechanisms for navigation. They remind me of the songs of whales. I can’t explain how they work any more than I can explain the whale songs or how migrating birds find their way. Though I have read about all of these things, I don’t think I really want to know (at a scientific level) how it works.

Each song has a particular direction or line to follow and walking the wrong way may even be sacrilegious. You don’t go up one side of a sacred hill when that is the side to come down. That would send you in the wrong direction both literally (on a map) and figuratively (in your life).

What is it about being alone in the wilderness that tunes (or, more likely, re-tunes) our awareness of the natural elements and our connection to them, and even to some creational source? Though I and my ancestors are a long way from that natural life, something remains inside us.

Like the vision quest, the walkabout is an initiation into the teachings and mysteries of the self and the universe. The seeker both finds truths and has truth revealed.

While the walkabout may have Aboriginal roots in Australia, and the vision quest is associated with Native American traditions, the journey is not unique to only those locations. That is why that film eventually led me to read about the archetypical “hero’s journey” and the search for the Holy Grail.

I wish I had a true vision quest or walkabout tale to tell you. I still hope that someday I will.

I have taken two much smaller journeys.  On one full moon weekend journey, with some guidance from someone who knew more about it than I did,  I sought my “guardian animal” in a vision or dream.

I wish I could say it was a wolf that I found because I have always felt an affinity to them, but it was a rabbit. (Of course, I was in New Jersey at the time, so a coyote would have been about as close as I was to come to a wolf – and we know the coyote is the trickster.)

I have also felt some kind of connection to rabbits since childhood.  The rabbit in my vision was quite real and I felt led me. I say that because I followed it and it never ran away but would stop, look back at me, wait, and then continue. I followed it for what seemed like a long time, and then, while I was looking at it, it disappeared.

That’s how I would describe it. Disappeared.

We were at the top of a rocky outcrop. There was a small stream ahead of us and down the rocks. I did not see a life direction or message in where I had been taken that day.  But I felt that I was at a place where I had a good, clear view. I did not know exactly where I was, but I was not lost. I could find my way back to where I had been, but I didn’t see where I needed to go next.

In the traditional Lakota culture, the Hanblecheyapi (vision quest) means “crying for a vision.”  I am still looking.

Welcome Time Travelers

I love the idea of time travel, all the theories about it, and all the fiction created about it. That giant of theoretical physics, cosmology, and pop culture, Stephen Hawking, did a simple time travel experiment. He invited time travelers to a party.

It was held on a Sunday, June 29, 2009. Hawking had a nice party room set up with champagne and food at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, beneath a banner reading, “Welcome Time Travellers” and he waited.

The party invitations gave precise GPS coordinates for the travelers. Of course, Stephen did not send out any of the invitations until after the reception had passed. That was critical to the experimental design: Only those who could travel back in time would be able to attend.

No one showed up.

There is a video of the party. Canapes uneaten, flutes filled with Krug champagne untouched, balloons decorating the place and Stephen sitting in his wheelchair under that banner. 

Wouldn’t any future time traveler have been excited to go back and party with Hawking? 

The invitation was included in his mini-series Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking and the Discovery TV crew filmed the event just in case someone did travel back. 

Some fancy invitations were auctioned off for charity and the party got a lot of press and exists all over the Internet. “I’m hoping copies of [the invitation], in one form or another, will survive for many thousands of years,” Hawking said, considering that maybe some future time traveler will see it and decide to show up to the party. Of course, if anyone did show up from the future that would create a whole new timeline in one of the many possible universes out there.

So why didn’t any time travelers attend? I’ve seen a bunch of possible reasons posited.

  1. We never do figure out how to time travel because it’s not possible. A bummer reason for believers.
  2. Maybe people in the future who had a way to time travel just never knew about Hawking’s party.
  3. Despite Hawking’s wishes, the invites didn’t survive to the time when time travel was invented.
  4. Might Stephen have lied and they did show up but he kept it secret to protect the space-time continuum?
  5. Perhaps you can only travel back to the point where time travel was invented.
  6. Maybe the time travelers went to a party with Stephen but it was in an alternate universe.
  7. Maybe the party didn’t sound all that exciting and they decided to pass on this party.
  8. The blog Giant Freakin Robot came up with some other possible reasons including that the party took place on a different reality timeline;
  9. “time travelers are dicks” 
  10. Even if people do figure out how to time travel, they may not have precise control like Doc Brown. “Ask Dr. Sam Beckett. Ask Billy Pilgrim. Ask Fry, Bender, and Professor Farnsworth who invented a time machine but it only went forward”
  11. The darker version of #4 – “Hawking killed them all to preserve the time-space continuum.”

Stephen Hawking died in 2018 at the age of 76, after living with motor neuron disease, a rare form of ALS. He died on March 14, which is Albert Einstein’s birthday. Seems like some synchronicity.

Hawking, 1965, age 23
He had been diagnosed at age 21.