Move over, Turing

Fernanda & Martin
4 min readJun 17, 2015

Let Rorschach have a turn.

The field of artificial intelligence is moving quickly, and computers seem to be getting smarter every day. To track their progress, people usually focus on Turing tests of pure utility: Can a machine see, hear, or drive as well as a human?

But maybe these intelligent computers aren’t just utilitarian tools. Couldn’t they have feelings, personalities, even psychological idiosyncrasies? Could they have their own strange personalities, different from any human?

To understand the subconscious thoughts of the new mechanical brains, we turned to an old standby. We made them stare at inkblots and tell us what they saw.

Our method

We found four websites that let you upload an image, to be labeled by an artificial intelligence. We’ll call them Robot 1, Robot 2, Robot 3, and Robot 4. (We say which is which at the end, but ID numbers are easier on the eyes than 2015-era startup names.) Then, using the algorithm from this art project, we created artificial “inkblot” images and asked the robots what they saw.

Before we started, we worried that all image recognition programs would have the same personality. Our very first results put that fear to rest.

Robot 1: hook, claw
Robot 2: barrette
Robot 3: art
Robot 4: Rorschach image

Robot 1 has a practical, understandable response, but provides two different answers. There’s a whiff of insecurity and an eagerness to please. Robot 2 says, “Barrette”: a surprise, until you think of a butterfly hairclip. Nice! Robot 3 pays us a vague compliment. Meanwhile, Robot 4 is on to us.

Robot 1: jigsaw puzzle
Robot 2: fleur-de-lis
Robot 3: design
Robot 4: black ink splotch illustration

Once again, Robot 1 picks a solid response. Robot 2’s answer is more poetic, with a royal flourish. Robot 3 evidently has opinions about the difference between art and design.

As for Robot 4: “splotch”? Should we be insulted?

Robot 1: mask
Robot 2: pin
Robot 3: isolated
Robot 4: Rorschach image

Robot 1, our most solid contender, goes with the cliche. Robot 2 picks “pin”, and wins points for imagination. “Isolated”, Robot 3? Are you trying to tell us something?

If Robot 4 has eyes, it’s rolling them.

Robot 1: hook, claw
Robot 2: handle-bar mustache
Robot 3: print
Robot 4: black face paint print

Robot 1, once again, chooses the hook/claw combination. Maybe an idée fixe? Robot 2 sees a hipster. Robot 3 stays vague, with “print”. At least it’s not feeling isolated this time.

Surprisingly, Robot 4 decides to throw us a bone.

Robot 1: mask
Robot 2: brass knuckles
Robot 3: isolated
Robot 4: black and white optical illusion

Here Robot 1 goes with the obvious, but for the first time, a hint of violence creeps into Robot 2’s answer. Meanwhile, Robot 3 once again alludes to feelings of loneliness.

We’re still pondering Robot 4’s answer. Is it mocking us or playing along?

Robot 1: pitcher, ewer
Robot 2: fastener
Robot 3: isolated
Robot 4: black art splat

For the final inkblot, Robot 1 has a solid guess and tries to show off its vocabulary. (Again, that need to impress…) Robot 2 shows some imagination with “fastener”. By now we’re sure Robot 3’s answers are a cry for help.

And Robot 4? Look, it’s not our best blot, but you didn’t have to be mean about it.


Before we started uploading images, the four image recognition sites seemed almost indistinguishable: slick HTML demos with up-to-the-minute Silicon Valley design.

Afterwards, we stopped seeing them as technology demos, and more as that kid in the front row who’s trying to get the teacher’s attention… a clever friend who always has something funny to say… the suffering loner with the artistic soul… and one snide cynic.

Maybe robots really do have personalities.


Here’s the key to the four robots.

  1. Metamind
  2. Wolfram
  3. Clarifai*
  4. Cloudsight

Clarifai actually provides a long list of tags for each image. We decided to do the simplest thing and just take the first in each case.

The inkblots seen here come from a collaboration with Marek Walczak.



Fernanda & Martin

Exploring the human side of AI. Senior Staff Researchers at Google Brain. Co-leaders of the PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative.