When Alan Turing proposed his famous ‘Turing Test’ in 1950, its purpose seemed clear: prove that machines can think, and thus exhibit the same mental faculties of human beings. His medium of choice was a text-only conversation, as it eliminated all variables except the essence of the conversation itself – what was being communicated. But as you can imagine, he found it difficult to define the process of ‘thinking’, so he simplified the test’s purpose to be the determination of a machine’s ability to IMITATE human thought.

The basic premise of the test is this:
A human being talks to a machine and another human (via text), unaware of which is which. The machine is programmed to emulated human thought/conversation as much as possible, so that the ‘interviewer’ continues to be unsure who is who. But the machine’s task is more complicated than simply giving the CORRECT answer to each question, because human beings aren't always right! Instead, it has to emulate the errors and idiosyncrasies of human behaviour, making the Turing Test much more complicated than a standard IQ test. If the human being is unable to tell which ‘person’ is the machine, the machine passes the Turing Test.

But what makes the Turing Test different to any other form of human interaction? Aren't we always assessing the people we talk to, the machines we use, and the environments we’re present in? Antique dealers make a living ascertaining whether or not something is of ‘authentic’ origin – making sure it is what the seller says it is – and judges make a living by determining who’s telling the truth in a court room. There are scores of professions that involve similar scepticism towards alleged ‘authenticity’, so I wonder…. what’s music’s place in this world of ‘communication scepticism’?

Many people consider music to be a form of communication, but beyond emotional expression, what do we communicate exactly? It’s been suggested that music, like many forms of art, acts as a social commentary on human society, reflecting the emotional side of our experiences. As a result, blues music from the 30’s and 40’s is the sound of pain, the sort experienced by share-croppers working in Southern American states. Rock n Roll from the 60’s is the sound of rebellion and ‘experimentation’, while much music from the 80’s reflects massive advances in technology, and the subsequent feelings of oppression by those who noticed the materialism we developed.

But amidst all these genuine attempts to express ourselves, there are imposters - music composed using algorithms, arpeggiators, sequencers, and other ‘crutches’. Not all music is created with the purpose of communication in mind, so perhaps the definition of ‘musical taste’ is one’s decision as to what the ‘real messages’ are? But what if a listener hears a message in a song that isn't actually there? What if a song that, to many, is nothing but a contrived piece of garbage, is actually a message of hope and respite to someone suffering assiduous depression? Are they wrong?

Perhaps the answer lies in ‘The Chinese Room Experiment’, created in 1980 by John Searle. In the experiment, a Chinese interrogator sits in a room and engages in a text-only conversation with a man in another room. The objective of the test is for the interrogator to determine if the man can actually speak Chinese…. but there’s a catch! The man being interrogated has been given some instructions, telling him which Chinese answers correspond to each question. Therefore, he can simply use his ‘program’ to ascertain the correct answers, without actually understanding what’s being spoken to him. But he’ll be able to answer all the questions correctly, so the interrogator will think he can indeed speak Chinese! The intention of this ‘test’ is to prove that the Turing Test is inherently fallacious, because teaching a machine to simulate the thought process does NOT prove that the machine can ACTUALLY think.

This idea might seem a bit extraneous to my question of whether or not musical interpretation is ever ‘correct’, but I believe the relevance is twofold. Firstly, I agree with the test’s implication that imitation is NEVER tantamount to creation, and that such imitation is the direct result of contrivance. Therefore, music that’s produced with minimum human input (and maximum production qualities) is simply a regurgitation of something that was once original. That is, the spontaneous materialisation of a memory deemed worthy of immortality.

Secondly, The Chinese Room Experiment shows that being tricked into believing something false only makes you objectively wrong. It doesn't infer any deficiency in those being assessed, as their judgement functioned as well as it could under the circumstances. So those that see a ‘genuine’ side in contrived music shouldn't feel ashamed; perhaps their imagination used the song as a ‘surrogate materialisation’ for their own memories? Besides, confirmation bias is surely more active in the area of artistic interpretation than almost anywhere else.

As much as it might sound paranoid, I think this ‘scepticism of authenticity’ is more prevalent in our judgement than we realise. But the process of judging authenticity is very intellectual, and requires us to assess aspects of the work that don’t strictly relate its genesis. In other words, we get so caught up in trying to validate music (and thus our musical taste), that we end up judging the music based on its ‘metadata’ (what the musicians look like, what bands they’re similar to, etc). This type of judgement avoids making an emotional connection with the music, perhaps because the schisms in our artistic taste indicate the limits of our empathy?

But in the midst of all of this, we can be united in ignorance. Why? Because the act of creating new memories requires us to recognise the limits of our existing knowledge. Collectively admitting that we don’t know what we like is the first step in broadening our tastes, and as we age, our willingness to do this with strangers diminishes. Adulthood demands virtuosity in many forms, so the admission of ignorance is something we become less and less accustomed to.

But there’s a way to kick-start the process. The next time you identify a ‘wall’ between your tastes and someone else’s, ask them what they like. Then when they answer, simply say….

'….prove it.'