The President Is a Computer, and Other News


On the Shelf

President Donald J. Trump, right, with boyhood friend.


  • Does the president pass the Turing test? I’m afraid not. When I listen to his answers to basic questions and compare those answers to a real human’s, it’s plain to see that he’s a computer—most likely, my research suggests, a Tandy 1000 EX purchased from a RadioShack in Secaucus, New Jersey, sometime in December 1986. If this is the case, it explains a lot of his more mystifying decision-making procedures. The neurologist Robert A. Burton sees plenty of evidence that the president uses machine learning, making him a rudimentary artificial intelligence: “Trump doesn’t operate within conventional human cognitive constraints, but rather is a new life form, a rudimentary artificial intelligence-based learning machine. When we strip away all moral, ethical and ideological considerations from his decisions and see them strictly in the light of machine learning, his behavior makes perfect sense. Consider how deep learning occurs in neural networks such as Google’s DeepMind or IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson. In the beginning, each network analyzes a number of previously recorded games, and then, through trial and error, the network tests out various strategies. Connections for winning moves are enhanced; losing connections are pruned away. The network has no idea what it is doing or why one play is better than another. It isn’t saddled with any confounding principles such as what constitutes socially acceptable or unacceptable behavior or which decisions might result in negative downstream consequences … As there are no lines of reasoning driving the network’s actions, it is not possible to reverse engineer the network to reveal the ‘why’ of any decision.”

  • Tobi Haslett looks at the life of Diana Trilling, now the subject of a new biography—and too often overshadowed by her husband, Lionel: “She and Lionel were part of a milieu that, in the nineteen-thirties, had looked to the theories of Marx and Freud for insights into human character and the fate of society—but, save for a brief flirtation, she had little use for Marx. Instead, she immersed herself in the Freudian universe of deep, growling desires, her mind pitched at the ego’s involutions and attachments … The persistent difficulty of her intellectual life—the fact that gripped and transfixed her, and that prompted her most pained, scrambled responses—was her status as a woman. As the wife of a famous intellectual, she was often seen as Lionel’s acolyte or appendage. Though she disdained second-wave feminism, she was not an anti-feminist; there is no ignoring the confident ferocity of her mind. She took a radical pleasure in self-assertion, but she asserted herself against radicalism. Her idea of liberation was a willed but gracious enlargement of women’s roles, a process that somehow needn’t bother with the so-called privileges of men.”
  • Maggie Nelson talks about her book The Red Parts, which tells her aunt’s murder in the late sixties and the arduous trial that followed. Published in 2005, the book is enjoying something of a resurgence as it arrives in the UK for the first time: “At the time, a lot of people told me it was very dark. I couldn’t see that then: I was so close to the material. But I can now: that intensity, the way the story had become my life. I’ve some compassion for myself as I was then. What I call [in the book] ‘murder mind’ had come to feel almost normal and run of the mill … The book is really a long critique of catharsis. But the irony is that my catharsis was writing down that there is no catharsis. The stories we tell ourselves don’t heal us, but I also think that if I hadn’t written it, I wouldn’t have processed the experience: writers tend to be people who process things by writing. The problems of the book don’t weigh on me so heavily now.”