Game review: The Turing Test – pit your wits against artificial intelligence

Achieving a rare harmony of gameplay and narrative, The Turing Test’s exquisite puzzles pit man against machine to show the power of lateral thinking – something machines can’t do

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 11:23am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 11:23am

The Turing Test

Square Enix

4 stars

For millennia, our species has understood that what helps separate us from the animal kingdom is our ability to articulate abstract phenomena, such as a fear of death in the absence of an immediate cause for alarm.

But is our intelligence reducible to our biology? In the computer age, this question has assumed greater urgency since the likes of Stephen Hawking have warned that unscrupulous research into artificial intelligence (AI) could pose a threat towards the human race.

The idea of an untamed AI has energised the popular imagination for some time. In film, there are archetypes like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the eponymous Terminator. And in video games, where there is no shortage of rogue AIs, Metroid’s Mother Brain and Portal’s GLaDOS stand out as two of the most iconic. With so much competition, it’s a minor wonder that Bulkhead Interactive, the Derby-based UK studio, has found in The Turing Test (for PC and Xbox One) a meaningful way to explore this motif.

In the game, you play as Ava, an engineer who has been revived from cryogenic rest by TOM the AI on a space station. The station is a satellite orbiting Europa – Jupiter’s sixth closest moon. TOM tells Ava that communication has been lost with a ground team and that it’s imperative that she assist in finding them.

After landing on Europa, it becomes evident that the robotically built base where the astronauts were last spotted has been given an interior makeover. Specifically, the base’s rooms have been reconfigured into puzzles or Turing Tests meant to differentiate machines from humans.

Turing Tests owe their real-world status to the ideas raised by Alan Turing, the famed 20th-century mathematician who was a pioneer of computer science. In his article, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, published in the October 1950 issue of Mind, Turing suggested that it should be possible to one day programme a computer to act in a way that was indistinguishable from an actual person.

As an example, he imagined a computer playing a version of the imitation game – a parlour game in which a man and a woman retreat into two separate rooms and the man is charged with impersonating the woman. The challenge for the guests is to identify which of the two people in the two closed rooms is a woman when all they have to go on are typewritten responses to their questions slipped under a door.

Turing hypothesised that it should be possible “in about 50 years” for a computer to “play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than a 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning”.

In The Turing Test, the imitation game is subjected to an ironic reversal. There is a computer on the base of Europa that the player can interact with that’s convinced the player is a robot. Over the course of the game, the player learns that the missing ground crew and TOM had a disagreement after they discovered an organism which TOM reasonably contends should not leave Europa.

The narrative brilliantly plays with TOM’s ability to exhibit human fallibilities such as doubt, conflicts in synthesising information, and conflicting memories. It is TOM who explains to Ava the significance of the Turing tests and, while recognising his own limitations, claims elsewhere an equal status as a thinking entity.

The puzzles in the game are exquisite. They are meant to demonstrate the power of lateral thinking – what machines can’t do. In this way, the game calls attention to some of the fundamental cognitive practices involved in gaming. The player is made to reflect on the fact that Ava has been tasked with learning rules – for example, that blue power spheres provide a continuous flow of electricity while green spheres generate it on and off – that must be combined in creative ways to demonstrate a meaningful, as opposed to a haphazard, understanding of the underlying logic of the puzzles she encounters.

The Turing Test achieves a rare harmony of gameplay and narrative. It should make one think about the flexibility of the mind and what it means to consider one’s species the apex of creation.