Fine-tuning Turing

I have finally been able to get some time to start working with a long due article, together with system developer Roger Mähler at HUMlab. The working title is, “Turing Testing Spotify”, and basically we will describe some of the different experiments we have conducted within our Spotify-project, as well as saying a few words in general about working analytically with audio sources. Even if audiovisual material today amounts to a steadily increasing body of data to work with and research, such media modalities are still relatively poorly represented in the field of the digital humanities. The purpose of the article is hence to provide some findings from our ongoing audio (and music) research project, and – via a meta commentary around Alan Turing – at the moment the piece starts like this:

In mid May 1951, Alan Turing gave one of his few talks on BBC’s Third Programme. The recorded lecture was entitled, “Can Digital Computers Think?”—and by the time of the broadcast, basically a year had passed since the publication of Turing’s (now) famous Mind-article: “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [Turing 1950]. The BBC program—stored on acetate phonograph discs prior to transmission—was approximately 20 minutes long, and basically followed arguments Turing had proposed earlier. Computers of his day, in short, could not really think and therefore not be called brains, he argued. But, digital computers had the potential to think and hence in the future be regarded as brains. “I think it is probable for instance that at the end of the century it will be possible to programme a machine to answer questions in such a way that it will be extremely difficult to guess whether the answers are being given by a man or by the machine. I am imagining something like a viva-voce examination, but with the questions and answers all typewritten in order that we need not consider such irrelevant matters as the faithfulness with which the human voice can be imitated.” [Turing 1951]

The irony is that Alan Turing’s own voice is lost to history; there are no known preserved recordings of him. The phonograph discs from 1951 are all gone—but the written manuscript of his BBC lecture can be found at the collection of Turing papers held in the Archive Centre at King’s College in Cambridge—partly avalable online [Turing Digital Archive]. The BBC also made a broadcast transcript, taken from the recording shortly after it was transmissioned. As Alan Jones has made clear, Turing’s radio lecture was part of a series the BBC had commissioned under the title “Automatic Calculating Machines”. In five broadcasts, an equal number of British pioneers of computing spoke about their work. The fact that these talks were given by the engineers themselves, rather than by journalists or commentators, was “typical of the approach used on the Third Programme”. Naturally, it is also “what makes them particularly interesting as historical sources” [Jones 2004].

Then again, Jones was only able to examines surviving texts of these broadcasts. Consequently, there is no way to scrutinze or explore Turing’s oral way of presenting his arguments; his intonation, pitch, modulation etcetera—in short, analyzing the way Turing spoke through for example speech recognition. Perhaps, he was simply presenting his ideas in a normal way, yet according to the renowned Turing biographer Andrew Hodges, the producer at BBC had his doubts about Turing’s “talents as a media star”—and particularly so regarding his “hesitant voice” [Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook]. The point to be made is that, audiovisual sources from the past have by and large been used by historians to a way lesser degree than text. Sometimes—as the case of Turing—archival neglect is the reason, but more often academic research traditions stipulate what kind of source material to use. In many ways, however, the same goes within the digital humanities. Even if audiovisual material today amounts to a steadily increasing body of data to work with and reserach, it is still relatively poorly represented in the field of DH.

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