Franny Choi: How I Wrote “Turing Test”

// do you understand what i am saying

Some immigrant kids grow up translating for their parents. I didn’t, exactly, since everyone in South Korea takes English classes throughout grade school. What I did do, as the eldest child, was use my native English skills to help my family pass more convincingly through America. I was the one called on to ask strangers for directions, to proofread my mother’s emails and my father’s scientific papers. One year, my parents decided they needed to work on their English pronunciation and asked us to correct them every time they said something incorrectly, to coach them until they got it right.

The Turing Test proposes that a way of testing artificial intelligence is to ask computers to trick humans into thinking they’re talking to a real person. When I first encountered the concept, I thought of my parents, of the afternoon I spent with my father as he said, “This is my first visit to San Antonio” over and over again. I realized that we hadn’t just been practicing to navigate America, but to prove our personhood. That was when the poem started to open for me.

// where did you come from

It’s not an accident that English is everywhere in South Korea—in pop songs, on storefront signs, in adopted words like camera and ice cream. It’s a military project as much as it is anything else. Which means that, when asked where my poem—by extension, where my language—comes from, American imperialism is necessarily part of the answer. Like everyone, I’m more than a little Man-made.

Anyway, I’ve come up with hundreds of ways to respond to the question “Where are you from” over the years. It’s always a trap. This was an attempt to write my way out of it.

// how old are you

The Turing Test was invented before computers, sort of. When Alan Turing proposed the thought experiment in his paper “Can Machines Think?” the question was a genuine one. This means, when we use Turing’s metric to understand advancements in artificial intelligence, we’re relying on a piece of speculative fiction.

When I asked myself the questions in this poem, I sometimes found myself trying to give “good” answers—or at least, the answers that were easiest to come up with, the ones that synthesized and reproduced the political truths I was most attached to. This isn’t really a surprise. People of color are asked the same questions over and over again, and it’s usually important to get the answers right. The stakes are high. We speak with the spectre of our communities (actual or perceived) hovering always over our shoulders. We have a responsibility to answer in ways that will make people listen and ensure that our people emerge dignified.

But I found the answers in this poem to be most exciting when I could move between good-faith responses and a more slippery kind of play. When I could be both legible and surprising—when I could swerve and sprint and slip out of reach, in addition to performing logic. It made the poem feel more alive—which, I guess, is the question inside all of these questions: Are you alive? Are you a person?

A question that’s already been answered can only recover the past. I wanted, in this poem and in the book at large, to try to approach these questions as not-yet-answered—as truly speculative. It’s only by asking real questions that we can make those enormous leaps in technology. I wanted to know what futures I could realize if I asked similarly ambitious questions of myself.

// why do you insist on lying

I’m not always sure if the “I” of this poem is me. It usually is, but there are parts where it splits off from me and starts to become someone else. Maybe this is partly because the English of this poem is broken, though only literally. Those slashes are a technology I learned from sam sax and Jan Beatty, among others. I liked the way they chunked the sentences into pieces, made them objects I could lay down like blocks. They made it easier to change the sentence as I went, made the language something I could gather and manipulate rather than asking it to bear the burden of coherence. They helped the poem become a machine I built piece by piece, a hybrid voice constructed with objects and animated by the spookiness of personhood.

There are lots of ways to be a cyborg without being a cyborg, is what I’m saying.

// do you believe you have consciousness

Whenever someone asks how I wrote something, I get a little moment of panic. Did I write it? Was I there when I wrote it? What if, in retracing my steps, I spook away the magic, and no poem ever comes to me again? Though of course, it’s not magic, exactly. At least, it’s not any more magic than the moment your computer screen goes from black to gray, or the moment when you call someone’s name and watch them return from a daydream, back to your conversation, back to you.


Franny Choi

Franny Choi is the author of two poetry collections, 'Soft Science' (Alice James Books, 2019) and 'Floating, Brilliant, Gone' (Write Bloody, 2014), as well as a chapbook, 'Death by Sex Machine' (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman Fellow, Senior News Editor for Hyphen, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective. She lives in Hamtramck, MI and teaches poetry through Inside Out Literary Arts.

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