The Turing Test
Making a chamber opera out of computer science rivarly
This article is from 2007.
Quite what Monteverdi would have thought about a singing computer featuring in an opera is anyone’s guess. Inspired by the famous test set by Alan Turing, founder of modern computer science, composer Julian Wagstaff has written a chamber opera to be fully staged by Edinburgh Studio Opera.
The idea came unexpectedly to Wagstaff, also a computer programmer. ‘I was in Boston working for a drugs company programming an industrial robot and visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum on a day off. There was an exhibition on Turing’s test for human-level intelligence in a computer and that was it; I had the title for my opera.’
The piece tells the story of two rival academics, caught in a bitter struggle to be the first to build a computer that is as intelligent as a human. According to Turing – who cracked the Enigma codes to help the Allies win World War II – a computer is intelligent if you can’t tell it apart from a human when chatting via a keyboard. Wagstaff’s singing computer, who goes by the acronym LUCIE (Live Unmediated Conversationally Interactive Entity), even enjoys opera herself. Influenced by Gershwin, Sondheim, Bernstein and Weill, The Turing Test verges on musical theatre but is, says Wagstaff, ‘musically challenging without being unlistenable. It will appeal to those who’ve never heard opera before and those familiar with it.’ (Carol Main)
Augustine’s, George IV Bridge, 0845 226 2721, 15–19 Aug, 9.25pm, £9 (£6).