I just kicked off the first day of my class Machine Reading/Reading Machines. The course is designed to introduce students to basic computerized textual analysis techniques while also tracking the genesis of our popular utopic and dystopic imaginings of technology from the nineteenth century to the present and engaging students in current debates about (inter)disciplinarity and the role of academia.
On the first day, I used an immersive activity to allow students to immediately start reflecting on how our conceptions of technology affect our understandings of what it means to be human. Without providing any indication of the purpose of the assignment, I broke students into pairs and had them administer to one another two tests designed to determine if the test taker is a human or a machine. The first was a modified version of the Voight-Kampff, the fictional test used to separate humans from androids in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and in Ridley Scott's adaptation Blade Runner. The second was a paper-based version of the familiar CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA tests, which we must regularly take to "prove we're human."
After finishing this activity,we had a class discussion that engaged with the following questions:
- What do you think the intended purpose of these test is?
- How would you describe the experience of taking these tests?
- There have been CAPTCHAs developed that judge test takers by their ability to empathize or by their ethical decision making. Why do you think that these have not become the industry standard?
- Does the success and general effectiveness of the CAPTCHA mean that the fundamental difference between computers and people is their ability to read texts and identify features in pictures? Why or why not?
Finally, students were asked to work in groups of 3-4 people to develop their own tests for determining if the test taker is human or machine.
Overall, the activity seemed to work well as a way to engage students with some of the central concepts of the course, and the tests developed by the students were thoughtful and creative.