Yesterday, at a University of Reading demonstration in London, a computer convinced human judges that it was actually a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. By convincing one-third of the judging panel of its humanity, it became the first computer ever to pass the famous Turing Test.
The Turing Test is a controversial test invented by Alan Turing in 1950. Turing believed that if thirty percent of humans could not distinguish a human from a machine in conversation, that would mean the machine is capable of "thinking." Until yesterday, a machine was never capable of convincing enough humans to be deemed artificially intelligent, though others have tried.
The University of Reading test was a five-minute keyboard conversation with someone or something on the other side. The questions are a free-for-all — no script is applied and there are no topics assigned in advance. It's meant to simulate a conversation with a complete stranger. The judges then determine if they believe they have been speaking to a machine or a human. As long as one-third of judges believe its human, the machine passes the test.
In 2012, a program nearly passed with 29 percent of judges convinced, but just barely missed the cut. Saturday's computer, which acted as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy named Eugene Goostman, made the cut.
Gootsman was created by a team of computer engineers, led by Russian Vladimir Veselov and Ukrainian Eugene Demchenko. (See? The two counties can get along if they try.) Goostman told the judges that he likes to eat hamburgers and candy, and that his dad works as a gynecologist.
The Turing Test has been a point of contention among researchers, and some argue that it is not a valid way to determine if computers can think. Professor Kevin Warwick, a visiting educator at the University of Reading, explained that this version of the test was actually quite vigorous: "The words Turing Test have been applied to similar competitions around the world [but] this event involved the most simultaneous comparison tests than ever before, was independently verified and, crucially, the conversations were unrestricted."
Goostman's age was crucial to passing the Turing Test. Developer Veselov explained that, "Our main idea was that he can claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn't know everything." So if the judges asked him something he was not programmed to know, judges might write that off as a factor of his age instead of his lack of humanity.
If you would like to talk to the first computer capable of "thinking," you can chat with Eugene here. Be patient, Eugene is getting a lot of chat requests now, so the website is taking longer than usual to load.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Turing Test took place at "the University of Reading in London." The test was conducted in London at the Royal Society, but University of Reading (which organized the event) is, of course, in Reading, England.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.