Enter the maze

Failing the Turing Test

We humans like to think of ourselves as special. We are somehow better, "higher", than animals. Humans are "the only species to use tools", "to have emotional lives", "use language", "do logical problem solving"... There are lots of things we think of that make us special. It boils down to intelligence, emotions and creativity, doesn't it.

Theater Masks

Trouble is, the more we study animals in detail the more we find they can do the things we thought made us special. Chimps use tools, like crafting twigs to dig ants out of logs. Elephants have emotional lives stopping and behaving noticably differently if they come across the bones of a dead relative, for example. Chimps and dolphins have shown they communicate using complex language. Even ravens have been found to do logical problem solving.

What makes us different from animals then? We end up resorting to more complex things. Only humans can play chess. Only humans do mathematics. Only humans produce works of art... Trouble then is we run into new problems.

These higher things start to be attacked from the other end. Machines can beat us at chess. They are starting to help us prove new mathematics that humans alone are unable to even check. They are even doing well in the creativity stakes. The paintings of Artificial Intelligence program, Aaron, sell for thousands of pounds. Where will it stop? It certainly seems to worry us. It all suggests we aren't so special. It is one more step in a series of discoveries about our place in creation that eventually we have had to swallow. Once we were the centre of the universe. Then we discovered the Earth went round the sun. Then it became one small planet in a small corner of an insignificant galaxy...

Artificial Intelligence (AI) research aims to create machines with intelligence. Not necessarily human intelligence, but something we recognize as intelligence. One of the earliest ideas of AI research, though is based on human intelligence: the Turing Test. It is a test of whether a purported "intelligence" really is intelligent or not. The way it works is you put a computer claimed to be intelligent in one room and a human in the other. Both, answering written questions, have to convince an interrogator that they are the human. If we cannot tell the difference between the human and computer then we should surely accept the machine as intelligent. This idea has not just driven research but also fiction. For example, the replicants in Blade Runner are subjected to tests very much like Turing Tests to prove they are not human.

Let us suppose for a moment that one day machines do easily pass Turing Tests. What would that mean beyond the loss of specialness? Machines passing the Turing Test would have an extra bitter side. A Turing Test is between a human and a machine. If the machine had passed the test, what then of the human it was against who failed it? At the moment, every time a machine fails the test we dismiss it as merely a dumb machine. Do we then have to dismiss any human who fails it in the future? Perhaps we should not be so proud in the first place, just in case.

In fact the machines passing the Turing test is potentially worse for us. Think of this potential future where the machines had passed our test and we declared them our equals. What if then this future intelligence proposed its own little game, its own "Turing" test just to be fair now it had passed ours. The shoe in this test is on the other foot. The test now is "Can a human convince he or she is the AI". Could we in time not only be able to show we had human intelligence but be able to do maths fast enough to convince we were the machine or analyse so fully a game of chess?

The machines at the moment have some hope. We are unlikely ever to pass their test, though cyborgs might...What future for humanity then?

Perhaps we should stop worrying about proving our own specialness. Apart from feeding our arrogance it isn't really necessary. It is creation as a whole that is so special. We are wonderfully lucky that we are in a position, using science, the arts and humanities to be able witness and understand so much of it, from views of the outer reaches of the galaxy down to how the brains of ants work.