Mind vs. Machine

In the race to build computers that can think like humans, the proving ground is the Turing Test—an annual battle between the world’s most advanced artificial-intelligence programs and ordinary people. The objective? To find out whether a computer can act “more human” than a person. In his own quest to beat the machines, the author discovers that the march of technology isn’t just changing how we live, it’s raising new questions about what it means to be human.
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Bryan Christie

Brighton, England, September 2009. I wake up in a hotel room 5,000 miles from my home in Seattle. After breakfast, I step out into the salty air and walk the coastline of the country that invented my language, though I find I can’t understand a good portion of the signs I pass on my way—LET AGREED, one says, prominently, in large print, and it means nothing to me.

I pause, and stare dumbly at the sea for a moment, parsing and reparsing the sign. Normally these kinds of linguistic curiosities and cultural gaps intrigue me; today, though, they are mostly a cause for concern. In two hours, I will sit down at a computer and have a series of five-minute instant-message chats with several strangers. At the other end of these chats will be a psychologist, a linguist, a computer scientist, and the host of a popular British technology show. Together they form a judging panel, evaluating my ability to do one of the strangest things I’ve ever been asked to do.

I must convince them that I’m human.

Fortunately, I am human; unfortunately, it’s not clear how much that will help.

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The Turing Test

Each year for the past two decades, the artificial-intelligence community has convened for the field’s most anticipated and controversial event—a meeting to confer the Loebner Prize on the winner of a competition called the Turing Test. The test is named for the British mathematician Alan Turing, one of the founders of computer science, who in 1950 attempted to answer one of the field’s earliest questions: can machines think? That is, would it ever be possible to construct a computer so sophisticated that it could actually be said to be thinking, to be intelligent, to have a mind? And if indeed there were, someday, such a machine: how would we know?

Instead of debating this question on purely theoretical grounds, Turing proposed an experiment. Several judges each pose questions, via computer terminal, to several pairs of unseen correspondents, one a human “confederate,” the other a computer program, and attempt to discern which is which. The dialogue can range from small talk to trivia questions, from celebrity gossip to heavy-duty philosophy—the whole gamut of human conversation. Turing predicted that by the year 2000, computers would be able to fool 30 percent of human judges after five minutes of conversation, and that as a result, one would “be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”

Turing’s prediction has not come to pass; however, at the 2008 contest, the top-scoring computer program missed that mark by just a single vote. When I read the news, I realized instantly that the 2009 test in Brighton could be the decisive one. I’d never attended the event, but I felt I had to go—and not just as a spectator, but as part of the human defense. A steely voice had risen up inside me, seemingly out of nowhere: Not on my watch. I determined to become a confederate.

The thought of going head-to-head (head-to-motherboard?) against some of the world’s top AI programs filled me with a romantic notion that, as a confederate, I would be defending the human race, à la Garry Kasparov’s chess match against Deep Blue.

During the competition, each of four judges will type a conversation with one of us for five minutes, then the other, and then will have 10 minutes to reflect and decide which one is the human. Judges will also rank all the contestants—this is used in part as a tiebreaking measure. The computer program receiving the most votes and highest ranking from the judges (regardless of whether it passes the Turing Test by fooling 30 percent of them) is awarded the title of the Most Human Computer. It is this title that the research teams are all gunning for, the one with the cash prize (usually $3,000), the one with which most everyone involved in the contest is principally concerned. But there is also, intriguingly, another title, one given to the confederate who is most convincing: the Most Human Human award.

One of the first winners, in 1994, was the journalist and science-fiction writer Charles Platt. How’d he do it? By “being moody, irritable, and obnoxious,” as he explained in Wired magazine—which strikes me as not only hilarious and bleak, but, in some deeper sense, a call to arms: how, in fact, do we be the most human we can be—not only under the constraints of the test, but in life?

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Brian Christian is the author of The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive.

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