Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Adventures with The Turk

I owe my discovery of “The Turk” to Walter Benjamin, who uses him to weave a dizzying thesis about the interrelation of Theology and Marxism: "The story is told of an automation constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet's hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called "historical materialism" is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight." Despite my reservations about the metaphor itself-- it trades on attributing a degree of whimsy to the supreme being that is difficult to square with the tradition. But it turns out that the story of the automaton is the real deal-- it was an ersatz chess-playing Turk made in the late 1700s and pawned off as an authentic robot until it was revealed as a hoax in 1857.

We imagine that there are hunchbacks inhabiting our machines all the time-- many people will swear that their iPod shuffles designedly, calculating its mix in order to pump them up during their workouts. Valve Software's recent zombocalypse shooter, Left 4 Dead, has a feature called the “AI Director,” an algorithm of some kind that dynamically alters the quantity and distribution of zombie attacks in the level based on your performance. When I was playing through L4D last week, my fellow survivors and I quickly fell to speculating about whether the AI director was capable of pity, whether our collective suffering would be sufficient to propitiate his reptile heart. The answer was no, though he can be swayed by turning the difficulty to “easy.”

Evolutionary psychologists have this theory about human consciousness, which holds that the human mind has a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Pithily, HADD) At some point in our emergence from the grasslands we acquired a propensity to perceive the world in terms of agency-- we see the world as if it were guided by an intelligence, as if every change in our environment was caused by an agent of some kind. By keeping us minutely keyed to the environment, the HADD may have helped the first homo sapiens avoid predators. Some philosophers of religion speculate that this evolutionary spandrel may be responsible for the belief in ghosts and spirits. Follow the misfires of our HADD long enough and you can explain why humans came to offering up goats to the big AI director in the sky.

I'm even more dubious of this theory than I am about the marriage of historical materialism to lurianic Kabbalah. However, to bring it back to games, we don't need any barely-empirical brain science to explain our dogged feeling that games put us in contact with a human mind. As Michael Abbott recently noted, the pleasure we get from gaming-- interacting with systems of rules-- is that playing a game is a kind of communication between the designers and the player. Games are an expressive medium because their rules are structured towards an end, because they have certain designs on the player. The reason the AI director seems like a merciless sonovabitch is because some brilliant people at Valve wanted to scare the bejeezus out of us, and keep us playing the same levels over again, and they created a set of rules fit to that end. It's their minds that are hunched inside the base of the robot.


Matthew Gallant said...

Great observation! Of course, Valve highlighted this fear by naming the software feature "A.I. director." Naming it "pacing mechanism" or "dynamic difficulty" wouldn't have evoked this sense of paranoia.

christopher hyde said...

There's a book about the Turk by Tom Standage, the science journalist who wrote "The Victorian Internet". I've scoped it out in the library a couple times but never actually gotten around to reading it.

dhalgren2882 said...

I think the presence of a human mind is something that can be discovered in many places. Reading a great novel will bring you face to face (or brain to brain) with another human being, and so will examining visual art.

The real test is whether the player can see the strings or not. If it feels constructed by a human mind then it's failing in some way. The goal is to place some subtle mark of consciousness into the code or words or paint of the piece.

Daniel Golding said...

Very interesting about this Turk. Chess seems to be intriguingly littered throughout the history of creating artificial agency. Claude Shannon's 1950 essay on 'Programming a Computer for Playing Chess' is a fascinating window into the pre-history of videogames. I also seem to recall Turing talking about a computer playing chess being used as proof of programmable intelligence, but I may be wrong.

And of course you are right about humans seeking out agency where there isn't any. I also remember reading a series of articles arguing for a fear of the still image becoming animated, influencing fin de siecle filmaking and early animation such as Windsor McCay's 'controllable' Bertie the Dinosaur.

What makes the Turk fascinating is not that it could 'play' chess, but that people were fooled into really thinking it could: that's the art of it. The same goes for games, as you rightly point out.

Ben Abraham said...

I was in a group in VS mode and one guy wouldn't stop harping on about how "the other team ALWAYS gets molotovs!" and how "the director hates us".

He couldn't take it and eventually gave up. Of course, the other team were just REALLY REALLY GOOD but I could definitely see this guy was coming from.

Oh, and "easy"? You need to play some with some pro's on Advanced and learn the tricks, IP. ;-)

Nelsormensch said...

For whatever reason, everyone's brain is wired to anthropomorphize to some degree. And maybe folks who spend a lot of time with fictional characters are a little more inclined to do so than others. One of the things I so enjoy about L4D's Director is now one's anthropomorphizing is somewhat justified. You're never quite sure when something is just dumb luck or coincidence and when the chessmaster dwarf is pulling the strings.

laz said...

My neurobiology of development professor has an interesting theory on why people become evolutionary psychologists. Namely, they go through a bad divorce and have to try to start making up stories about why it's not their fault, but actually their partner was evolutionarily wired to act like a douche. (I don't think she used the word "douche" but she is a divorcee, and if she didn't say douche, I bet she was thinking it.)

"Barely empirical" is about right.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I always liked Brian Eno's observation about religion when it comes to things like 'The Turk'.

To paraphrase, the thing that religion does that is quite profound, even to an atheist, is that it is a positive way of accepting the fact that you are not in control of your life as opposed to the cynical belief that the universe is merely chaotic.

To me, I think people gravitate towards the idea of someone being in control upstairs because it gives one the hope that there is something more going on than just random meaninglessness.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@dhalgren: Steve Gaynor over at Fullbright says much the same thing: "Every time the player is confronted with overt rules that they must acknowledge consciously, the lens is smudged, the stage eroded; at every point that a simulated experience deviates from the Holodeck ideal, the designer's hand is exposed to the player, drawing attention away from the world as a believable place, and onto the limitations of an artificial set of concrete rules governing the experience."

On one hand, I emphathize with his view-- you don't like running up against the designer's obvious contrivances at every turn. But on the other hand there's the subtle way you pick up on the designer's intention, and that can be good.

@ben: burn! in my defense using the controller drops you about one difficulty level down relative to mouse and keyboard. right?

@laz: ha! yeah, evolutionary psych is pretty, um, speculative. About as scientific as psychoanalysis, which also has a lot of intellectual currency in the religious studies.

@l.b.: word. We need more cosmic speculation on this blog, and also more Brian Eno.