Wired Says a Turing Test Contender May Be on the Horizon

“A Great science fiction detective story”
Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

Luck and Death at the Edge of the World

Days to Centenary: 70

Just in time for the Turing Centenary and the Alan Turing Year, Wired magazine reported just days ago that we may soon see a genuine contender for an artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test, or as Turing himself called it, the Imitation Game.

If you´re new to this area — and many people are learning about Turing for the first time this year — the Turing Test in a nutshell requires three participants:

  1. a human judge
  2. a hidden human who communicates with the judge only in writing, basically by text message
  3. a hidden artificial intelligence that similarly communicates with the judge only in writing

The judge knows that either participant 2 or participant 3 is a computer, while 2 and 3 both have to try to convince the judge that they´re the human being.  If the computer succeeds, it has passed the Turing Test and has earned the right to be treated as intelligent without any consideration of the means by which it managed that persuasion.

An image of the front of Turing´s groundbreaking paper

An image of the front of Turing´s groundbreaking paper

The test was set out in a paper entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, published in 1950, which effectively founded the discipline of artificial intelligence.

One rationale for the test is that it reproduces exactly the way in which we humans deal with one another.  Experientially, the only person I know is intelligent — whatever flaws there might be in that faculty — is me, because I know my own thoughts directly.  When I meet you, or anyone else, I can only judge what your internal life might be by interpreting your outward behaviour.

In other words, I have no way of knowing to a certainty that you´re a sentient being, but if you behave like one then I will tend to adopt the operational assumption that you are indeed one.

Why — Turing asked — should a machine be dealt with any differently?

A copy of the issue of Mind in which Turing´s paper appeared

A copy of the issue of Mind in which Turing´s paper appeared

For the most part the Turing Test has remained a hypothetical construct.  That is until a guy named Hugh Loebner established the Loebner Prize, in which actual attempts are made by computers to pass the test (for details see my post Turing Media Feast, Part III: The Turing Test in Theory and in Real Life).

A little friendly competition

A little friendly competition

That competition has not so far produced anything that is likely to pass the Turing Test any time soon.  A recent article in the esteemed-but-paywall-protected journal Science (Dusting Off the Turing Test, by Robert M. French. Science, Vol. 336 No. 6088, April 13, 2012) has postulated that that situation may soon change.

Given the paywall, I am relying on a report from Wired about the article:

“Two revolutionary advances in information technology may bring the Turing test out of retirement,” wrote Robert French, a cognitive scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in an Apr. 12 Science essay. “The first is the ready availability of vast amounts of raw data — from video feeds to complete sound environments, and from casual conversations to technical documents on every conceivable subject. The second is the advent of sophisticated techniques for collecting, organizing, and processing this rich collection of data.”

Notoriously, the human mind proved to be less like a computer than had been thought in the mid-20th century, so success at the Turing Test was more problematic than expected, to the extent that many people dismissed the quest entirely, but the Science article appears to take the position that this was a mistake.  Says Wired:

Suppose, for a moment, that all the words you have ever spoken, heard, written, or read, as well as all the visual scenes and all the sounds you have ever experienced, were recorded and accessible, along with similar data for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of other people. Ultimately, tactile, and olfactory sensors could also be added to complete this record of sensory experience over time,” wrote French in Science, with a nod to MIT researcher Deb Roy’s recordings of 200,000 hours of his infant son’s waking development.

He continued, “Assume also that the software exists to catalog, analyze, correlate, and cross-link everything in this sea of data. These data and the capacity to analyze them appropriately could allow a machine to answer heretofore computer-unanswerable questions” and even pass a Turing test.

It´s a timely moment to revive Turing´s specualtions, given his approaching centenary.  It seems unlikely that the Turing Test will actually be passed this year, but 2012 would be a welcome moment to reinvigorate the search for a successful contestant.

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