Turing and Battlestar Galactica
As noted in my previous entry, the finale of Battlestar Galactica was last Friday night. I've been thinking about what to say about BSG in the wake of its departure.
I don't want to talk about the finale because I don't want to reveal any spoilers here, no matter how carefully I firewall them. I'd hate for someone to come across this site and have the end ruined for them.
Besides, what I'm more interested in is the fundamental premise of the series. Ultimately, when everything else was stripped away, BSG seemed to me to be a four-year exploration of what it means to be human.
During a decades-long armistice, the Cylons evolved from clunky metal robots to perfect facsimiles of humans. 12 models were created, with many copies of each, and some of these human-appearing Cylons infiltrated the Colonies. Of these infiltrators, some knew who they were and what their missions were, while others were sleeper agents, believing themselves to be human but ready to be activated to carry out their missions. Prior to the Cylons' attack on the Colonies, as far as I know, none of their agents -- sleeper or otherwise -- were discovered. They were accepted in their roles as friends, lovers, warriors, and the like.
Once the humans discover that Cylons can now appear to be human, they take the attitude that they are nothing more than simple machines, incapable of emotions, incapable of doing anything not in their programming, and generally show little or no remorse at beating them, torturing them, throwing them out airlocks, and so on. "Toasters," they're called.
So my question is, did the Colonies never have their equivalent of Alan Turing? What his test tells us is that the only useful test of the "human-ness" of an artificial intelligence is whether it can fool a human observer into thinking it's human. In the Turing test as it's commonly conceived, the computer would have the advantage of operating over a text-only connection, so that the human wouldn't be able to rely on visual or aural cues.
But in BSG, the Cylons interact directly with humans. They talk with them, make jokes with them, fight alongside them, make love with them -- and no one is the wiser. Clearly they pass the Turing test not just for intelligence, but for emotion as well.
And yet this fact doesn't seem to enter into the humans' thinking. They realize that the Cylons are essentially perfect copies of humans, distinguishable only via a complex blood test or when they're caught in a compromising position. Despite this, they continue to think of Cylons as machines, devoid of rights -- or souls, for that matter.
In warfare, we dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to kill them. BSG takes this to its logical conclusion: it may be nearly impossible to identify the enemy, even after years of close exposure, but since they're machines, they're completely dehumanized and so can be abused with impunity.
We would never do that.