Congratulations are due to the creators of Eugene Goostman, the first computer program to pass the “Turing test”. It’s a remarkably difficult thing to create a program that is able to imitate conversation reliably and convince even a minority of observers that a human is on the other side of the screen. Problems of artificial intelligence are what sparked my first interests in psychology back in the early 1980s, so the steady progress that has been made towards this goal over the last 64 years demonstrates to me how creative we are as a species.
Lesser plaudits need to go to many journalists who have reported this achievement in somewhat breathless tones, often forecasting in apocalyptic terms the end of human society as we know it. The Independent’s reporting is typical of how the test has been misunderstood. They report:
Computing pioneer Alan Turing said that a computer could be understood to be thinking if it passed the test, which requires that a computer dupes 30 per cent of human interrogators in five-minute text conversations.
Unfortunately for the Independent (and doom-merchants everywhere), Turing’s 1950 paper(*) makes no such claim. While he starts the first paragraph of his paper asking the question “Can machines think?”, he quickly changes his focus to discuss whether a machine might be able to imitate a human in a conversation (the imitation game). His famous test is formulated to assess that specific proposition, not whether a computer program can be said to be truly thinking for itself – a proposition that he believed to be “too meaningless to deserve discussion”. Instead, what Turing writes is:
I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 10^9, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning.
Turing was out in his prediction by around 14 years (a mere twinkle in time of course) and modern computers have a somewhat greater storage capacity than 10^9 words or bytes, but it was a remarkably accurate prediction if you take the long view of human history.
So, unlike much of the mainstream media, I’m not in the least worried that a computer program has finally passed his famous test.
However, there is a test that if a computer program should ever pass it will definitely send me off in search of stocks of corned beef, bottled water and a safe bolthole in the Derbyshire hills. It’s known as the Lovelace test. Simply put, it says that if the human designer(s) of a computer program are unable to account for the output it produces, then it can truly be said to have become conscious. Now that’s a scary thought!
(*) Turing, A.M. (1950). Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind, 59, 433–460.