Composer/librettist Julian Wagstaff talks about how The Turing Test came into being:
The origins of this work lie in a visit I made to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) museum in Boston in the spring of 2006. I was visiting the city in my “other life” as a computer programmer, writing a piece of control software for a robotic incubator for the pharmaceutical industry.
At that time I was searching, with a degree of urgency it must be said, for a subject for an opera. I had been approached by Edinburgh Studio Opera (formerly the Edinburgh University Opera Club) with a view to my composing a new work for their 2007 season. I had agreed to undertake the project - and now time was running out.
My attention was caught by an extensive set of exhibits and documentation in the museum relating to the “Turing test” – the famous test for artificial intelligence named after the English cryptographic genius and pioneer of computer science, Alan Turing. To simplify somewhat crudely: the Turing test postulates that verbal behaviour is a quintessential hallmark of intelligence. Therefore, if one is communicating via two computer keyboards with two respondents in a remote room, one of whom is human and the other of which is a computer and if, after a substantial length of time (say, a few hours) one cannot say which is the computer and which is the human, then the computer is said to have passed the test, and to possess intelligence.
This tantalising and insightful propostion began to crystallise a large number of disparate dramatic ideas around it in my mind, some of which had been lying dormant for a considerable length of time. These included themes of academic rivalry - and in particular academic dispute as a proxy for other forms of human dispute, the nature of language and being, and many more besides.
By the time I left the museum, the scenario for my opera was to all intents and purposes complete. By the time my return flight landed at Heathrow, it existed in tangible (albeit almost entirely illegible) form.
Once the characters and scenario were clearly defined, the libretto followed without major incident. I was very clear as to the kind of opera I wanted to write. It would be lyrical, and singable in a way which would make it equally successful when performed either by students or professional singers. It would make explicit reference both to grand opera and more popular styles of musical theatre. It would be a “Grenzgänger” in the way that the works of Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin often are – treading a line between opera and the musical. That said, my piece would unarguably fall on the operatic side of this hotly-contested frontier.
And so the work turned out. It received its first performance on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2007, performed by Edinburgh Studio Opera.
Complete with a singing computer.