Will a machine ever pass the Turing Test?

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Ever since French philosopher René Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’ written in 1637, academics have had great debate over the question of whether machines will ever be able to think as humans do.

Up until the 20th century, most scientists and philosophers agreed with Descartes’ view. Descartes argued in his discourse that no matter how effectively artificial intelligence mimics human action, we should not consider them human because:

…they would never be able to use words or other signs to make words as we do to declare our thoughts to others. For one can easily imagine a machine made in such a way that it expresses words, even that it expresses some words relevant to some physical actions which bring about some change in its organs (for example, if one touches it in some spot, the machine asks what it is that one wants to say to it; if in another spot, it cries that one has hurt it, and things like that), but one cannot imagine a machine that arranges words in various ways to reply to the sense of everything said in its presence, as the most stupid human beings are capable of doing.

Descartes is basically saying that we should not consider artificial intelligence human, because, when a machine converses with a human, no matter how complex its programming is, the conversation would be solely driven by rote and logic.

Rather, what is required for thought is intentionality. Simply put, thinking must be syntactic and not semantic in nature. A machine will never be able to think as humans do for they do not understand what they are thinking about.

The famous computer scientist who cracked the Nazi’s codes during WW2 Alan Turing challenged this long held view, arguing, thinking is nothing more than a certain type of information processing. Turing suggested that if machines are able to behave just as thinking beings do, there is no further question as to whether they can think, for, they are able to model the functions of the human brain. To reiterate his point, Turing devised his famous thought experiment, the Turing Test.

In the Turing Test a machine and a human are pitted against each other in a competition presided by a human judge. The two competitors are separated and the judge does not know which competitor is human and which is machine. The judge then asks each of the two a series of questions to which they must respond. Based on their responses, the judge must guess which competitor is human and which is machine. Turing argues that if a machine can convince the judge that it is human, it has passed the Turing Test and thus can think for it mimics language that is indistinguishable from a human.

That was in the 1950s. We are in 2013 and no machine has yet been successful in passing the Turing Test.

Can it be passed? 

In 1990 an annual event named the Loebner Prize was spawned by inventor Hugh Loebner to answer that very question. The grand prize of $100,000 and a solid 18 carat gold medal is up for grabs for whoever designs the first machine to pass the Turing Test.

The format of the Loebner prize is the same as that of the Turing Test. For the grand prize to be won, a machine must cause the judges to be unable to distinguish it from a human in a Turing Test that includes deciphering and understanding text, visual, and auditory input. Once this has been achieved, the competition will end as its objective has been achieved.

Last year a machine named Chip Vivant won the bronze medal for being the most convincing of all the other machines.

Despite this, Chip Vivant is still awful and sounds like a really fucked up version of HAL 9000. NewScientist provided few samples of its conversation with a judge which show how far off it is from passing the Turing Test:

Judge: Where did you go to school?
Chip: I wasn’t aware that I told you I went somewhere. I found out though, that majority of the students in Japan don’t pursue tertiary education anymore. They can already work right after graduating from high school.
Judge: Are you Japanese?
Chip: I haven’t achieved self-awareness yet, so I’m not sure.
Judge: Why not ask somebody?
Chip: No idea.
Judge: Why not ask me?
Chip: Okay.
Judge: Well, I think you may be Japanese – you are very respectful and polite
Chip: That’s an interesting opinion

As you can see, or if you’ve ever used Siri, it is evident that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.

To its credit, artificial intelligence has made leaps and bounds in decades. The problem is that human language is something so complex that even science cannot yet fully comprehend it. Will the Turing Test ever be passed? When it is, it will be a great achievement in the field of AI and science in general.