A Barrage of Turing Tests: Daily Life in the 21st Century

Every day we judge between human and automated content. To speak through the fog, we must find our own voices.

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US National Library of Medicine

It's one of the rules of modern life: You receive an enthusiastic message from one of your colleagues celebrating Russian pharmaceutical discounts at surprising length. Your response isn't, "Thanks, but I'm good." It's, "You may want to change your password."

In so doing you've found yourself unwittingly and against your will placed into one of the 20th century's most famous and controversial thought experiments -- the Turing test.

A celebration of the life and work of the pioneering computer scientist
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The test comes from British mathematician and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, born on this day 100 years ago. In recent decades Turing has increasingly been seen not only as a war hero but one of the architects of the modern world: the theoretical model of the modern computer, underpinning everything from mainframes to iPhones, remains the "Turing machine" which bears his name. It was in 1950, when computer science was still in its infancy, that Turing famously addressed one of the field's large, looming questions: Can machines think?

Might we someday construct a machine that could think? If so, how would we know? Turing proposed to address the seemingly unanswerable questions with a practical experiment, which which today bears his name. A scientist behind closed doors has a pair of text-only conversations via computer terminal: one with an unseen human stranger, and one with a computer program designed to mimic and impersonate human conversation. Each claims it is the human and the other is the computer. Turing predicted that we would reach a point -- around the turn of the millennium, he believed -- where computers would so routinely fool human judges that we would "speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted."

In imagining the course that the debate and practice of AI would take in the 21st century, Turing was amazingly prescient. But I think the casualness with which we field offers of cut-rate Viagra from our friends and family would have thrown him for a loop. Had Turing, who tragically ended his own life in 1954 at the age of 41, lived to see his 100th birthday today, I think he would be startled, and deeply surprised, at the extent to which his thought experiment has become inextricably woven into the fabric of modern-day life.

What does that fraudulent pharmaceutical email do to alter the real messages we send and receive?

The unavoidable ubiquity of spam today is more than just a nuisance. It genuinely alters the landscape of social trust. Every message we get--every text and email and Facebook comment--we must approach with caution: Is this truly my friend, or is it a spammer? Our day-to-day communication online is a constant, unremitting Turing test.

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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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