Proof Of Human

I wrote the article below, about the challenge of humans proving we’re humans, almost 14 years ago, in May 2009. Here in 2023, the challenge has truly arrived, so I think it’s worth a revisit.

Look at the current crop of generative AI. Imagine the next generation. And ask yourself: How can we prove an entity is human? And without that ability, what happens to banking, to social welfare programs, to voting? What happens to society?


Last week, Saya the robot made her teaching debut in Tokyo. She is "multilingual, can organize set tasks for pupils, call the roll and get angry when the kids misbehave."

I'm sure Saya would fail it, but it seems pretty clear that the Turing test is either obsolete or near enough to it not to matter. These days, nobody cares whether a machine can pass for a human. Instead, Turing's been superseded by the far more pressing Turing 2.0: Can a human pass for a human?



Consider the last time you sent an email to someone you didn't know. How did you introduce yourself? What did you say to prove that you were you -- and, therefore, worth listening to? Consider the last time you met someone new online -- maybe someone who sold you that used exercycle on Craigslist. How could you tell it was a person? More important, how could you tell it was a trustworthy person?

As we shift more and more of our activity online, this new Turing becomes more and more important. Turing 2.0 is at the heart of modern reputation management, at the heart of our ability to make online connections that develop into genuine relationships. In this era of data transparency, the data has to stack up in our favor.

Our efforts to prove that we are real people are both helped and hampered by technology. Our Digg reputations and eBay reputations help us, assuming we've been good little Diggers and eBayers. Mail merges hurt us, not because mass personalization is inherently evil, but because they raise the standard of proof.

Our online activities -- our blogs, our Facebook profiles, our Twitterfeeds -- all support our claim that we are real, that we are alive, that we matter. Sometimes I think that's the source of our collective social media addiction (yes, my own as well): W\e are all screaming to prove we exist, and the louder we all scream, the louder we all have to scream in order to be heard.

Google’s new profiles play right into our fears about Turing 2.0. What if that person to whom I'm selling my exercycle Googles me, and nothing comes up? She'll think I'm a scammer! She'll think "Kaila Colbin" is just a made-up name! But I'm real... I'm real!

So we cast aside our privacy concerns and upload yet another profile pic and fill in yet another online form field with our blog's URL. We do this because we hope that this time, our efforts will be enough to help us rise up out of the crowd, to prove that unlike the indistinguishable morass of spammy pseudo-identities, we are unique.

We want to be legitimate in the eyes of other people. But being legitimate in the eyes of the Internet offers benefits as well: link juice benefits. AdSense benefits. Ranking benefits.

Once again, just as they created machine-generated blogs and phony Facebook accounts and fake tweeters, the people who inevitably seek to game the system rise up, generating algorithms to produce human-like Google profiles, looking to cash in on the benefits bestowed by the Internet on those it believes to be human.

We can all be spoofed and aliased. No one is immune. All we can do is try to stay one step ahead of the machines.

Writing program terminated.

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