Monday, June 13, 2005

Will Men Ever Pass the Turing Test?

The BBC is reporting on an art installation in which robotic benches and trash bins interact: The benches will flock together and sing to greet the sunrise; each device will have it's own personality and preferences as to other devices.

Of course fans of Douglas Adams will be reminded of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which the robots produced by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation are next to useless because they're equiped with "Genuine People Personalities". Management theoriests have a term, "agency costs", which, roughly speaking, refers to the cost of an employee pursuing his own agenda over that of the organization that employs him. You can think of rock star CEOs using their companies as personal piggy banks, but it applies to uncooperative behavior on all levels down to the lowliest corporate functions. But unlike the case of uncooperative people, you can't go to an intelligent elevator's boss and complain it's hard to work with. The elevator merely has to be useful enough that tolerating it is slightly cheaper than ripping it out and replacing it. Come to think of it this strategy isn't unknown among people working in large enterprises either.

There's also a theory among roboticists that states that when faced with a technology that behaves in somewhat human ways, people's minds will tend to fill in the gap, humanizing the technology. Everybody has known somebody who thinks their old car, with its quirky "personality", must somehow be alive. But (the theory runs) if technology gets too close, then we will to instead focus on the subtle ways the technology falls short of actual humanity. Video game designers are reaching the point where they can do photorealistic depictions of characters, even to the point of modeling how light is scattered and reflected by the layers of human skin. The results are, ironically, an eerie impression of non-humanity, as if they had filmed an animated corpse.

Of course, it may be we ourselves fall short of expectations in various subtle ways as well. With that in mind, I present a little fable of the near future, featuring intelligent dust-bins and benches and people who... Well, let's say some things never change.


(Joe, a young man in his mid twenties, is on the way to an appointment in a city park. He's running late, but he realizes he's forgotten his watch. )

Joe: Bin, do yo have the time?

Bin: It's quarter past nine. By the way the bins down 3rd street say there's a rain squall heading this way; you might want to duck inside until it passes.

Joe: Is there a Starbucks around here?

Bin: No, but there's an independent espresso shop at 150, just half a block north of here. They left a promotional message on me, would you like to hear it?

Joe: Uh, no thanks.

(Later, at the park.)

Joe: Bench, have you seen a girl named Mary?

Bench: Somebody was sitting on me for about five minutes earlier this morning, but I don't know if that's who you're looking for. That was about 8 am.

Joe: Well if she shows up, tell her that I waited for half an hour but I had to leave.

(Some minutes later, Mary, an attractive young woman about Joe's age, walks up briskly. She's obviously not in a good mood; for one thing she's soaking wet. )

Mary: Was there somebody waiting for somebody here?


Bench: I'm sorry, dear, were you talking to me?

Mary: Yes, was somebody waiting for me here?

Bench: Well, somebody was here at about 8AM. About 10 there was a young man who was here for about five minutes. He left a message for somebody he was waiting for.

Mary: What was the message?

Bench: I'm sorry, I'm afraid it might be personal; would you mind telling me your name, dearie?

Mary: My name is "Mary Moe."

Bench: Well, he said if Mary shows up, I should tell her he had waited for her for half an hour.

Mary: But you said he was only here for five minutes? Around 10 AM?

Bench: Yes. He arrived here at 10 AM, four minutes and five seconds, and left at 10 AM, eight minutes and fifty three seconds. That makes a total four minutes and forty eight seconds.

Mary: Oooh. How can he be such a jerk!

Bench: I'm sorry dearie, I can't help you with that. You sound like you might be in trouble. If you need a real person to talk to, I can put you in touch with one. Are you in trouble?

Mary: Uh, no thanks, I'm fine.

Bench: Don't mention it.

(Later on that day Mary calls Joe)

Mary (on phone): Joe, you jerk! You stood me up!

Joe: No I didn't! I waited for half an hour! I left a message with the bench, the one that sounds like somebody's grandmother!

Mary: You idiot. The bench told me you were only there for only five minutes. And you were late. And you were supposed to meet me by the statue of Douglas Adams, not Lewis Carroll.

Joe: Which statue of Adams?

Mary: The Equestrian one you dope. The seats at the big monument are granite.

Joe: Oh, no! I hate that bench. It's so crabby.

Mary: Not as crabby as I am.

Joe: OK, look, I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you I swear!

Mary: Yeah right.

Joe: No, really. Meet me this afternoon at the bench by the pond.

Mary: Which bench?

Joe: The one that sounds like Barry White.

Mary: Oooh! I love that one.


There's a test posed by the mathematician Alan Turing , as way to judge whether a machine has achieved intelligence or not. The test and all its variations boil down to this: You interact with something that is either a machine, or a person, and if you can't tell the difference then you have to admit machine is at least as intelligent as the person. Naturally, you have to contrive this interaction to hide information that is irrelevant to intelligence from the judge. For example, the judge can't see the person he is interacting with face face, but only over a computer link. Initially, this may be difficult, but given sufficient time, the judge can distinguish between true intelligence, which understands what it is talking about, and simulated intelligence, which uses clever strategies designed to evoke favorable results statistically frequently.

Which raises the question: Will men ever pass the Turing Test when it comes to women's feelings?


n54 said...

Nice story :) but I'm not sure I like the punchline as it is, after all how many humans (regardless of the sex of the person) pass the Turing test when it comes to another persons feelings? For each individual the number of persons passing that test with flying colors is few enough to make for a major cultural theme.

I guess it depends on what meaning one implies with "another persons feelings", one could say it applies as the minimal social intelligence required to pass the Turing test. But... is this all implyng that Turing machines can't be assholes if they wish to pass the test?

It all makes me wonder how many double-blind Turing tests have been performed if any. I would not be surprised if a significant amount of humans failed it (including me) :)

Matt Leo (grumpynerd at yahoo dot com) said...

Nice story :) but I'm not sure I like the punchline as it is, after all how many humans (regardless of the sex of the person) pass the Turing test when it comes to another persons feelings?

Well, this is speculation of course.

But given that some person passes the Turing test when it comes to somebody's feelings, I'd be willing to wager on their gender. Not that there aren't exceptions, of course. Curiously one thing that I've read is that while women say they like sensitive men, they don't like men who cry. The only viable explanation for person who takes this position is that s/he want other people to be sensitive to him/her, without the need to return the favor.

So maybe the distaff side isn't all that much better at the feelings thing that we give them credit for.

But... is this all implyng that Turing machines can't be assholes if they wish to pass the test?

Depends on which species of the asshole-dom doesn't it? I mean, one of the things I've learned over the years is that difficult people come in different varieties. There's the Ambitious Backstabber, there's the Social Climber, there's the Woman Who Either Will Bake You Cookies or Throw Objects At You When Approach Her Cubicle But You Can Never Be Sure Which.

But note that in 2/3 of these particular cases, you actually have to have a pretty good understanding of what's going on inside other peoples' heads -- at least if you want to pull it off. The last case is an example of the "My Emotions Are So Out Of Control I Have No Time For Whatever Is Going On Inside Your Head" genus. These people don't pass the Turing test for their own emotions, much less other peoples'.

Which raises an intriguing possibility: a person who understands what makes others tick but has no idea of what's going on in his own skull.

I think there are probably a lot more of these people than you'd think at first. The psychologist with a messed up personal life is almost a cliche. But the same thing goes for people in other walks of life, like spiritual leaders; may be especially spiritual leaders.

Which is why we need Ethical Ironicism (see prior post).