Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human, tells interviewer Leonard Lopate what it's like to be a participant in the Loebner Prize competition, an annual version of the Turing Test. See also Christian's article, excerpted below.
Atlantic Monthly: ... The first Loebner Prize competition was held on November 8, 1991, at the Boston Computer Museum. In its first few years, the contest required each program and human confederate to choose a topic, as a means of limiting the conversation. One of the confederates in 1991 was the Shakespeare expert Cynthia Clay, who was, famously, deemed a computer by three different judges after a conversation about the playwright. The consensus seemed to be: “No one knows that much about Shakespeare.” (For this reason, Clay took her misclassifications as a compliment.)
... Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls “The Sentence.” Specifically, The Sentence reads like this:
The human being is the only animal that ______.
The story of humans’ sense of self is, you might say, the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence. Except now it’s not just the animals that we’re worried about.
We once thought humans were unique for using language, but this seems less certain each year; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this claim also erodes with ongoing animal-behavior research; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.
We might ask ourselves: Is it appropriate to allow our definition of our own uniqueness to be, in some sense, reactive to the advancing front of technology? And why is it that we are so compelled to feel unique in the first place?
“Sometimes it seems,” says Douglas Hofstadter, a Pulitzer Prize–winning cognitive scientist, “as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not.” While at first this seems a consoling position—one that keeps our unique claim to thought intact—it does bear the uncomfortable appearance of a gradual retreat, like a medieval army withdrawing from the castle to the keep. But the retreat can’t continue indefinitely. Consider: if everything that we thought hinged on thinking turns out to not involve it, then … what is thinking? It would seem to reduce to either an epiphenomenon—a kind of “exhaust” thrown off by the brain—or, worse, an illusion.
Where is the keep of our selfhood?
The story of the 21st century will be, in part, the story of the drawing and redrawing of these battle lines, the story of Homo sapiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked by beast and machine, pinned between meat and math.
... In May 1989, Mark Humphrys, a 21-year-old University College Dublin undergraduate, put online an Eliza-style program he’d written, called “MGonz,” and left the building for the day. A user (screen name “Someone”) at Drake University in Iowa tentatively sent the message “finger” to Humphrys’s account—an early-Internet command that acted as a request for basic information about a user. To Someone’s surprise, a response came back immediately: “cut this cryptic shit speak in full sentences.” This began an argument between Someone and MGonz that lasted almost an hour and a half. (The best part was undoubtedly when Someone said, “you sound like a goddamn robot that repeats everything.”)
Returning to the lab the next morning, Humphrys was stunned to find the log, and felt a strange, ambivalent emotion. His program might have just shown how to pass the Turing Test, he thought—but the evidence was so profane that he was afraid to publish it. ...
Perhaps one of the lessons that MGonz illustrates is that you can appear more intelligent by interacting confidently and aggressively :-)