Turing’s Prescience — The Turing Test and Sophisticated Interaction

Days to Centenary: 253

Every once in a while I’m not looking for Turing, but I find him anyway. Is it just coincidence? Am I simply attuned to seeing reflections of Turing in the world because of working on this blog? I think it is coincidence, and I am attuned in that way, but I suspect that it’s more than that.

I think Turing’s prescience — his ability to form important questions (and hypotheses about the answers to those questions) well in advance of the rest of us — means that his relevance becomes increasingly obvious over time. If I were writing a blog about a prominent alchemist I doubt I would come to see reflections of their theories as prominently in the world around me.

In 1873 Arthur Rimbaud wrote in Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) that “[i]l faut être absolument moderne,” that is “one must be absolutely modern.” Alan Turing manages this trick better than just about anyone, perhaps in the company of H.G. Wells (and maybe Ray Kurzweill, although more time will have to pass before Ray’s predictive powers can be assessed). Turing was so modern back in 1950, when he devised what we now know as the Turing Test, that he anticipated issues whose dimensions and importance are only now becoming clear to most of us.

All of which leads me to “Milo,” whose TED videos I recently stumbled across. Milo is a homo artificilialis created by researchers at Microsoft as a means of allowing games to be more realistically interactive. His image lives on a screen which you observe, but he’s watching you through a camera as well. His inner workings incorporate elements of artificial intelligence that allow him to react to your body movements, facial expressions, tone of voice and other signals, and in turn control not only his body movements, but his blush response, the dilation of his nostils, and other subtle aspects of his interaction with his environment, including his reactions to you.

The extremely fine detail of Milo’s perception and display mean that not only can he understand crude inputs like those from a keyboard, but he can perceive you at an unprecedented level of detail, improving the fine grain of his input dramatically. And not only can he deliver gross outputs like speaking and moving his body in large-scale ways that give an impression of life, he can output small-scale details approximating the expression of thought and emotion that will evoke in you unconscious reactions that have previously been impossible for less finely tuned simulacra to obtain. All of this adds up to significantly improved believability — Milo excels at “the imitation game,” Turing’s own term for the procedure involved in the Turing Test (for those unfamiliar with the test, there is more on it below).

This BBC article has an embedded video of Milo, while the video below is more recent and addresses public reaction to the first video.

You can interact with Milo with a degree of realism that other artificial humans can’t approach, but does he pass the Turing Test?

In “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” [pdf] Turing famously postulated a test in which — to summarize his argument at the risk of doing violence to an elegant thought — a human subject interacts through text messages with two participants he or she can’t see, one being another human and the second being a machine which is to be tested for intelligence. If the subject — who can only interact with the participants through text — is unable to correctly identify which participant is the machine, then the machine can be said to have achieved some measure of intelligence.

In other words, if the machine can imitate an intelligent creature with sufficient believability as to make it indistinguishable from an actual intelligent creature, we should treat it as having intelligence. We may not agree that the inner workings that allow it to appear to be thinking are actually capable of producing real thoughts, but the inner workings don’t matter. In an experiential sense we don’t directly confront the inner workings of our friends or families — we deal with their external signals, like words and gestures — and yet we treat them as possessing intelligence.

So what about Milo? Peter Molyneux, who showed off Milo at TED, says “[m]ost of it is just a trick – but it is a trick that actually works.” The thing is that in the Turing Test, if it works, it works — external functionality is the sole standard by which a prospective thinking entity is measured and “tricks” are irrelevant. One of the fundamental questions underlying the Turing Test is: if something can interact with a person in such a way as to appear indistinguishable from that which we accept as intelligent, on what basis do we deny it the label “intelligent”?

As homo artificialis becomes better at imitating homo sapiens, this question is thrown into greater and greater relief. You and I see it when we look at Milo — Turing saw it in his minds eye at a time when a telephone was a heavy bakelite object tethered to a wall by a cord and a computer was something like ENIAC, which filled a room and weighed 30 tons.

Obviously I see Turing in the world around me because, through his pioneering work in mathematics and computing, he is embodied in that world, but very importantly I also see him everywhere because his almost magically prescient thought makes him more and more relevant as time goes on.

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