Imitation Games

Franny Choi

In the year 2000, I was the chief copy editor of my household. We had just gotten a computer a few years before, and, as the eldest child of our immigrant family, it was my job to proofread my parents’ emails. My mother would call me out of the room I shared with my two siblings and point me to the Yahoo Mail page pulled up on the Mac 95. As she rushed off to the kitchen to pound garlic, I rolled up my sleeves and put my fifth-grade grammar to work.

I wish delay not be problem, the email said. I corrected it to, I wish the delay would not be a problem. Then, I reread the paragraph, realized what my mom was saying, and changed it to, I hope the delay will not be a problem. I smoothed out phrases, tried variations: I hope the delay won’t cause any problems. I hope the delay’s not an issue! I do not wish to cause any problems with the delay.

When I was done, my mother would shuffle back in, wiping her hands on her apron, and make me explain each edit.

“I changed ‘a homework’ to ‘the homework,’” I said, pointing with the cursor.

“Why?” she asked in Korean.

“Because—I don’t know. You don’t say ‘one homework.’ I mean, maybe you say, ‘a piece of homework.’”

“The homework,” she repeated. “The homework. Okay, what else?”

“Um,” I scrolled. “And this, I just changed it to sound more polite.”

“Will you let me know,” she read, trying out the phrase. “Oh, that’s more polite? ‘Let me know’?”

“Well, no,” I said, struggling to explain, “‘Let me know’ is kind of a casual way of saying it, but it’s like… friendly? And it’s more polite to ask it as a question than to say, ‘tell me.’”

She nodded. “Will you let me know. Will you let me know.”

“Or you can say, ‘please let me know,’ but that’s, like, really formal.”

“Please let me know,” she repeated. “The homework. Okay.” She hit ‘send’ and said in Korean, “Tell your siblings to come eat dinner.”

“I mean,” she said, switching to English as she hurried back into the kitchen, “Please, will you let them know come to dinner.” She laughed at her little joke as she popped open the rice cooker to fluff it vigorously.

Like most Koreans of their generation, my parents had taken English classes all throughout grade school—but there’s a vast, violent difference between speaking a language and speaking it well enough to move through American xenophobia unscathed. Over the years, my parents signed up for a few ESL classes and kept two volumes of a Korean series called Casual English, which explained phrases like “a dime a dozen” and “while you’re at it” in great detail. But their secret weapon, of course, was us: me, my younger brother, and my younger sister, all of whom spoke perfect American by the time we were in the first grade.

One year, in a fit of frustration, my parents insisted that we correct every grammar and pronunciation mistake they made, no matter how small. All year, the apartment was noisy with our family’s collage of idioms and diphthongs: my father rehearsing “frankly speaking” over and over as he switched through slides; my mother practicing the th in “Catholic” and the th in “mother”; my siblings demonstrating “doesn’t, doesn’t” until its meaning fell apart in their mouths. We learned to smile reassuringly at cashiers, to chirp, “Have a good one!” in flawless Midwesternese to avoid some danger we couldn’t quite name, only feel the seething edges of.

Now, in my thirties, I walk away from interactions at the grocery store and replay each conversation, studying the tape like it’s still my job. Was my joke about the plastic bags weird?, I muse, chewing my thumbnail as I drive home. How’s your day going. How’s YOUR day going. Maybe she didn’t hear my joke.

I wish I could stop picking apart every two-minute conversation I have with a stranger, but I can’t shake the habit. I can’t stop going back over the scene and asking, “Was I convincing?” Of what, I’m not sure.

Forty years before my parents stood in line at the airport, practicing the dialogue they would have with the immigration agent on the other side, a British scientist was writing a different kind of imaginary high-stakes conversation. The Turing Test, as it came to be known, was first proposed by the mathematician Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in which he famously asks, “Can machines think?” In response, Turing posits that the more useful question to ask would be: Could a machine successfully imitate human thinking?

The test he proposes is a modification of a popular parlor game called the Imitation Game. In it, two people, one man and one woman, go into separate rooms, each with a typewriter. A third stands outside and calls out questions with the aim of figuring out who’s who. The other players type and slide their answers under the door, doing whatever they can to trick the guesser: lie, joke, do their best imitations of each other. In Turing’s version of the game, one of the players in the rooms is replaced by a machine. The aim isn’t to distinguish man from woman, but human from computer—for a computer program, that is, to successfully fool someone into thinking they’re talking to a real person. Turing predicted that machines would be passing the test by the end of the twentieth century. This wasn’t to say he was making prophecies about the rise of Skynet, or even—to answer the original question—that he believed computers would be able to think. What Turing was saying was simply this: by the year 2000, machines might, sometimes, with some reliability, seem human to us.

Nearly twenty years past that deadline, I’m in an art museum in Dallas, sitting alone on a bench to listen to a sound installation. From speakers hanging above my head, the sounds of voices, garbled and collaged. The voices are the voices of women interviewing at a sperm bank. It’s a meditation on the commodification of human life, according to the artist, and I’m listening, concentrated, trying to decide whether or not I like it.

Suddenly, the door swings open, interrupting my focus, and a couple walks in. Like most of the museum’s guests, they’re white, middle-aged.

“Oh my god!” exclaims the man, pointing at me. “I thought she was real!”

Angry at the disruption, I turn my head to scowl at him.

“Oh!” he says. “She is real!” He laughs and turns to the woman. “I thought she was part of the exhibit,” he says to her.

I wait for my apology, but none comes. They sit down on a nearby bench, their voices drowning out the sounds of the art piece. Finally, I give up and walk out the door, as the sound from the speakers mixes with his words, churning in my mind—she is realshe is realshe is real

Each year, various competitions are held to test computer programs against Turing’s proposal. The most prominent of these is the Loebner Prize, launched in 1990 at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Judges chat with bots and people for about five minutes each, and the competition gives monetary prizes to the programmers whose bot can fool the most judges into thinking they’re talking to a human.

I’ll say this from experience: you can do a lot in five minutes to convince someone to treat you like a person. “How’s it going, I’m checking in,” I say to the hotel receptionist as I step up to the counter; “Oh, I did my undergraduate at Brown,” I say to my doctor, pulling out my list of questions. When the DMV clerk complains about the weather, I pull a you’re telling me face. But sometimes, you don’t have five minutes. Sometimes, the Turing Test flashes past in a single, clamorous instant.

“Welcome aboard, sir” says the flight attendant to the graying man ahead of me in line. “Welcome aboard,” she says to his wife. She’s projecting calm. But like all flight attendants, she’s also silently keeping tabs on six or seven potential disasters at once: someone struggling with their suitcase, cabinets clanging, the minutes ticking down until departure. Amid this tiny orchestra of chaos, I step up and enter the scene. She looks at my face. The briefest moment passes, a calculation so quick she likely doesn’t register it’s happening. It takes just long enough for the line to start moving again. She settles on a languageless smile.

“How’s it going,” I try, but it’s too late—she’s already looking away, toward the sound of someone slamming an overhead compartment. The test is over; I didn’t make it. The line shuffles me along.

“Welcome aboard,” I can hear her say to the family behind me as I heave my bag down the aisle, solid and invisible as any object.

Once, in middle school, I checked out a book from the local library—an actors’ guide to British accents. For some reason, I cherished this book. I stayed up late mouthing its vowels, practicing Scouse and Cockney intonations. Alone in the basement of our rented split-level ranch house in Decatur, Georgia, I honed my ability to sound like I was from places I’d never been to, places I might never in my life see. This was eighth grade. We had just moved for the third time in my life—from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Connecticut, and now, to a suburb in the South, where girls threw pool parties and cicadas screamed from the trees. In history, my class was debating whether or not Georgia should change its state flag, which, since 1956, had borne the stars and bars of the Confederacy.

“You have to admit that the old flag is prettier,” said Abby, one of those girls who was so confident, other people seemed always to be floating toward her, like bugs to a blue screen. I was a devoted student of the back of her head. One day, she turned around. “Do you have a pen I could borrow?” she asked, pronouncing it, as everyone in Georgia seemed to, the way I’d pronounce the word “pin.” For days afterward, I practiced under my breath: Pin. Pincil. Pinguin.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls imitation a “specialty” of patients who experience dissociation—who develop, as he calls it, a “false self ” that is compliant, competent, acceptable to the parent. In their book Racial Dissociation, Racial Melancholia, David Eng and Shinhee Han note the prevalence of dissociation among their Asian American patients and students, and take it a step further, arguing that this way of being describes a quintessential Asian American experience. They write that certain features of dissociation— compliance, deference, imitation—in fact “quite accurately describe the social contract of Asian American model minority citizenship in the United States.” You can stay, as long as you don’t cause trouble, as long as your labor is “skilled,” as long as you don’t stand out.

When I left Georgia for college, I was eager to start clean, to shed white suburbia’s long trance and leave that well-behaved outcast self behind. I was excited to finally be the real me—but it wasn’t always clear whether I was becoming her or just learning to impersonate her. For one thing, my accent was muddled beyond hope by the end of my first year at Brown. I used “y’all” in every other sentence, while saying “both” like a Midwesterner and “marry” like a New Englander. Worse, my accent would shift, subconsciously, depending on who I was talking to; and unfortunately for me, my new classmates were from everywhere: from London to Johannesburg to Kansas.

To be able to imitate accents on cue is a skill; to do it unintentionally is cause for suspicion. This is the problem, of course, with trying too hard to pass the Turing Test. “There are those who can be themselves and who can also act, whereas there are others who can only act,” writes Winnicott. But what to do when “talk like yourself ” is an impossible demand? In the grocery store, I say “yes ma’am,” giving it a little too much twang, and the clerk’s eyes linger on my face as she hands me my receipt. I scurry off before she can see the seams of my skin suit—or worse, before she sees there’s nothing underneath it at all.

I can’t help but wonder now about how convincing my mother’s corrected emails actually were. Was it obvious that they’d been proofread by an eleven-year-old kid who’d rather have been playing Pokemon? I’m sure there were times I overcorrected in one direction or another, times I made my mother sound too colloquial or too academic. After all, I, too, was actively learning how to sound like a real person, picking up words and phrases every day from episodes of The Simpsons and Friends, from vocabulary quizzes and the cafeteria. And what happened on those occasions when, surely, my mother didn’t bother with calling me into the room? What sort of person did the person on the other end imagine my mother to be—this woman who might have said, “I am appreciate the more time” one day and “Glad everything checks out” the next?

My job was to correct my mother’s sentences; I wonder now if my ministrations only made them more monstrous. I wonder: what’s the likelihood that, in trying to make her voice sound more natural, I only shoved us both further into the uncanny valley?

As it happens, Alan Turing’s paper was published in the same year that the Korean War began—1950. I say this to say that when Koreans use English to try to prove their humanity, we’re telling an old story. It’s a story that includes children learning to say “Gib-eu me choco-let” to American soldiers, who sometimes bought loyalty with cans of food, and other times bombed crowds of refugees to clear the roads. It’s a story that includes the sex workers who sold American cigarettes on the street to buy rice, and who, for the rest of their lives, bore the mark of having once been a woman who’d said, “honey, honey, kiss.” It’s a story, of course, of Korean villagers saying “migook,” meaning America, and of the way that act of reaching morphed into a slur, turning us—and later, perversely, whole swaths of people along the Bamboo Curtain—into gooks. The lesson being: if you want to be human, be careful how you pronounce your liberator’s name.

That lesson persists. In 2019, South Koreans spent 6.14 trillion won (about 5.5 billion dollars) on private English education. A month after arriving in Seoul on a study abroad semester, I said the word “girl” in front a group of Yonsei students, and they practically swooned. And if I ever got lost navigating the city, it wasn’t because I was a foreigner, since every bus stop, exit sign, and subway announcement was also given in English. Seoul anticipated my American presence; I was afforded an ease of movement in those few months that my parents, in the US, never were.

Maybe this is an assimilation story, but not the way you might think—a story not just about “making it” in the US, but about surviving American assimilation into the fabric of post-war South Korea. Maybe the day we became gooks is the origin point of what I experience, two generations later, as a refraction of my selves. Somewhere in my history, a woman is calling a soldier what he is, and the word flies back, twisted, and wraps itself around her form. No wonder I woke up with an “I” and a “you” tangled up inside me. No wonder I keep fussing with my voice box: How’s it going. I’m good, thank you. Thanks for taking the time.

In 2014, a flurry of news articles reported that a computer program had finally done it. At a competition held by the Royal Society in London, a chatbot called Eugene Goostman managed to convince 33% of judges that it was human, leading the conference’s organizer, Kevin Warwick, to proclaim it to be the first to pass the Turing Test (a claim that was subsequently met with much debate). Built by three Russian programmers, Eugene Goostman’s secret weapon was his persona: a jokey, thirteen-year-old boy from Ukraine, whose English included some occasional, charming mistakes.

Eugene’s foreignness operated as a kind of plausible deniability, an explanatory shield for the garbled phrases he inevitably started spitting out after a few minutes of conversation. While my parents’ grammatical errors had pushed them further out of the realm of people one ought to treat as people, Eugene’s nudged him further into it. Somewhere between them: a valley, where the inhumanity of the accented immigrant mingles with the inhumanity of the speaking machine. Somewhere in that valley, eighth-grade me is whispering, “pin, pincil, pinguin,” while fifth-grade me tries to copy-edit her way out.

Incidentally, the chatbot currently regarded as the world’s best is Mitsuku, who’s won the Loebner Prize more times than any other bot. Created by a man named Steve Worswick (yes, he is), Mitsuku is represented by a number of avatars, ranging from a blonde pseudo-anime character to a CGI teenager with a Y2K- chic blue bob. But unlike Eugene, Mitsuku has no built-in blunders with English, no foreign accent. Her Japanese-ness, in other words, is purely aesthetic. She is just Asian enough to smooth that line between foreignness and thingness, to make it all make sense.

I can’t help but imagine a different iteration of the test, one in which Eugenes and Mitsukus compete against immigrants from Korea, Cambodia, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and so on. How many of each group might end up being categorized as bots, and how many as humans? In many ways, such questions are constantly being answered by the Turing Tests all around us: Who’s a “criminal” and who’s a “kid”; who’s “illegal”; who’s a “real woman,” and so on. Always, on the other end, a judge, peering into the valley and saying, “I am a person. What are you?”

I’m visiting home and listening to my mother give orders over the phone. For the past nine years, she’s worked as a nurse practitioner, and on the days she’s on call, the phone erupts constantly.

“This is Grace,” she answers, lifting the end into a melodic question. We’re driving up the downtown connector from the airport, my dad at the wheel. When my mother listens, she listens with her whole body, torso tilted toward the car speaker, eyes pointed up as if watching the words scroll in the sky over the highway.

“Let’s order an abdominal x-ray to rule out bowel obstruction,” she says at a professional, extra-enunciated clip. She sounds amazing. She throws in an “eleven- ish” like it’s nothing, and I can’t help but marvel.

And yet, at home, when we sit down to dinner, all she talks about is how hard it is not to be able to “speak English well.” At first, I brush this off. “You’re both great at English,” I say dismissively as I fuss with the samgyeopsal on the grill. But my mother’s not satisfied.

“They complain about they don’t understand me, because of my pronunciation,” she says. She looks worn thin as she picks at her bowl, and I remember the tenseness in her listening body. “Every day is so hard. I feel discriminated.”

She tells me that, during her first few years at the long-term care facility where she works, her survival strategy was to be relentlessly agreeable. She’d smile, act cheerful, say yes to anything anyone asked her to do—because it was easier than trying to argue in English, easier—as Eng and Han write—“to comply and to be compliant.”

“I told myself, I’m at the bottom, I’m the lowest one here,” she says now. “That way, when someone mistreat me, I can just say, ‘oh, well’ and not be mad.” Instead, my mother would smile, smile, smile her way to the end of each week.

“I’m so glad that you speak English and don’t have to do that,” she says to me. I don’t meet her eyes as I stuff a lettuce wrap into my mouth. My dad asks if I’ll look over his grant report while I’m home.

Did I ever become real to that man in the museum? When I turned my head, he realized his mistake. But rather than apologize to me, he’d turned to the white woman next to him and narrated the mistake to her: “I thought she was part of the exhibit.” In turning my head toward him, I became real, though not real enough to merit a direct address. I recognize this relegation to “she.” Occasionally, as a kid, people would all but refuse to talk to my parents. Even when they were standing right there, they would be addressed only in the third person: “What’s her last name?” “Can he come in next week?” It would be as if their bodies were set pieces, present only to give context to the scene.

What if, instead of glaring, I had been—to use Cathy Park Hong’s words from her essay “Bad English”—soberingly fluent? I play the dialogue over and over in my head as I pace around my apartment, rehearsing for a confrontation that’s already not happened. What if I had followed them out of the room and demanded an apology? Or explained how it had felt to be pointed at like that? Or called him an asshole, kicked him in the shin? What if he happened to read this essay, or any of my writing? What would be most likely to convince him that I was a person worth addressing? Would any of it be enough?

This version of the imitation game is a losing one. Sure, it’s pleasurable to stomp around and fantasize about my eloquence, eloquence as an act of revenge. But most often, what feels like vengeance is just more of that old plea: Let me in. The more I say, “I am a person,” the more the other side of that coin gleams: “I am a person, not a thing,” which spins ever dangerously toward: “not a monster,” “not foreign,” “not illegal,” and so on. And yet, to speak English well is my job—has always been my job. How to do it without cleaving myself further from my parents? How to fix my mother’s sentences without splitting apart her voice, and mine?

Writing for the New Yorker, cognitive scientist Gary Marcus complains that modern day Turing Tests don’t test “real” AI technology, though he concedes that “it’s easy to see how an untrained judge might mistake wit for reality.” However, he writes, “the winners tend to use bluster and misdirection far more than anything approximating true intelligence.”

“Wit” versus “reality.” “Bluster and misdirection,” as opposed to “true intelligence.” But aren’t wit and misdirection as much technologies of intelligence as are Python or C++? Don’t white men writing for the New Yorker depend on witty phrasings to secure their ability to be seen, and therefore live, as people in the world, with all the things we agree “people” should have (food, housing, dignity), even while denying them to “those people” in the same breath?

I’m not convinced that Turing himself would have agreed with such a clean separation between “wit” and “intelligence.” In one passage in “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” a questioner asks, “Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.” An unnamed respondent replies: “Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.” Is this a human speaking? An imitation of a supremely clever computer? Turing doesn’t say one way or the other. In fact, he admits: “It might be urged that when playing the ‘imitation game’ the best strategy for the machine may possibly be something other than imitation of the behaviour of a man.” I only wish he would tell me what that “something other” was.

Here’s a description of the only computer program I’ve ever written, during the single month that I audited an intro-level computer science class: It asked: “What is your age?” And when you entered a number, no matter what you put, it would respond, “YOU ARE OLD!”

This was a week when we were supposed to be learning about “if/else” conditional statements. The original code I’d written had said “you are old” or “you are young” depending on what number the user inputted. But in the end, I decided it would be funnier if the answer always came back the same. Fifty-seven? YOU ARE OLD! Seventeen? YOU ARE OLD! And so on.

She was a profoundly useless conversation partner, my program—profoundly artificial, and profoundly unintelligent. And I loved her.

“If a patient cannot play—cannot mediate competing social realities in a healthy and adaptive manner—then it is the goal of therapy to enable this basic, creative skill,” write Eng and Han. Racial dissociation as a result of forming that compliant false self that America demands, that is, leads to an inability to play. And play is crucial. The ability to play is what allows us to move through the terrible contradictions of living in this place, in these bodies, in the wakes of these histories, while maintaining something like a self.

What would it mean for me to treat the imitation game as just that—a game? To smile, smile, smile—not just to survive, but to win by playing? By messing with the program until I can make someone—even just myself—laugh?

I’m in an art museum in Dallas, sitting alone on a bench while listening to a sound installation. From speakers hanging above my head, the sounds of voices, garbled and collaged. The voices are the voices of women interviewing at a sperm bank. It’s a meditation on the commodification of human life, according to the artist, and I’m listening, concentrated, trying to decide whether or not I like it.

Suddenly, the door swings open, interrupting my focus, and a couple walks in. Like most of the museum’s guests, they’re white, middle-aged.

“Oh my god!” exclaims the man, pointing at me. “I thought she was real!”

I turn my head toward him. On his face, realization clicks. Before he can speak again, I point back.

“Oh my god!” I exclaim. “I thought he was real!”

He starts, then laughs. “Oh,” he says. His wife looks back and forth between us.

I laugh, as startled and relieved as he is. “Oh no, I’m so sorry,” I say, standing. “I thought you were part of the exhibit.” Above, a woman’s voice, minced into fragments, is saying, someone who, someone who, someone who.

“You thought—?” says the man, confused but smiling.

“I know, how funny!” I say, shaking my head in agreement. We share a laugh. “Okay, well, thank y’all for coming,” I say, beaming gregariously.

“Oh,” they say.

“Yep, you can just exit back out that way,” I say, gesturing with an open hand. “Bye now.”

“Thank you,” they say, wondering who I am.

The door swings shut behind them. I take my place and listen. Overhead, a collage of voices churns, saturated with longing as the women describe the kinds of humans they hope to create. I wish theI hope theI hope thesomeone who. I mouth along with the almost-language, until I feel myself starting to come into focus.