The Turing Test – barista vs. the machine…

In the thick of barista competition season, I came across this passage in the Atlantic in an article about the Turing Test—an annual artificial intelligence competition that pits computers against ordinary people to see if a program can act “more human” than a human. The quote comes near the end of the piece.

“One of my best friends was a barista in high school. Over the course of a day, she would make countless subtle adjustments to the espresso being made, to account for everything from the freshness of the beans to the temperature of the machine to the barometric pressure’s effect on the steam volume, meanwhile manipulating the machine with an octopus’s dexterity and bantering with all manner of customers on whatever topics came up. Then she went to college and landed her first “real” job: rigidly procedural data entry. She thought longingly back to her barista days—when her job actually made demands of her intelligence.”

The passage struck me because, well, it’s always nice to see folks outside the industry recognize the complexity of the barista craft. And because sometimes it’s easy to forget when we’re nose deep in our work, that issues similar to the ones we deal with are being wrestled with in totally different fields. The tension between man-made and machine-made, efficiency vs. craftsmanship, is very much on the forefront of our coffee brains, and certainly the larger food and beverage industry, but it’s part of the same conversation—with different terms and different processes—being debated across global economies. What is sacrificed and gained when things that were done by hand and human attention are automated by machines? Perhaps it’s just an updated version of the conversation societies have been having since the earliest signs of the industrial revolution.

What I loved about this piece (besides author Brian Christian’s humor) is that he seeks to underline the things humans are inherently better at than machines, and how as technology continues to rapidly develop, humans have also been adapting. He uses the barista analogy to illustrate our minds’ flexibility and to sum up his piece as cause to celebrate what he hopes represents a shift from our elevation of the brains potential for pure, cold cognition to “a changing perspective on the sophistication of various tasks…”

Check out the whole piece here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/03/mind-vs-machine/8386/1/ Its worth the read.

Teresa von Fuchs