Can a computer fool you into thinking it is human?

Robert Epstein was looking for love. The year being 2006, he was looking online.

Can a computer fool you into thinking it is human?
Alan Turing was one of the first people to consider whether machines can "think"

As he recounted in the journal Scientific American Mind, he began a promising email exchange with a pretty brunette in Russia.

Epstein was disappointed - he wanted more than a penfriend, let's be frank - but she was warm and friendly. Soon she confessed she was developing a crush on him.

"I have very special feelings about you. In the same way as the beautiful flower blossoming in mine soul... I only cannot explain... I shall wait your answer, holding my fingers have crossed..."

The correspondence blossomed, but it took a long while for him to notice that Ivana never really responded directly to his questions.

She would write about taking a walk in the park, having conversations with her mother, and repeat sweet nothings about how much she liked him.

Suspicious, he eventually sent Ivana a line of pure bang-on-the-keyboard gibberish. She responded with another email about her mother.

At last, Epstein realised the truth: Ivana was a chatbot.

What makes the story surprising is not that a Russian chatbot managed to trick a lonely middle-aged Californian man.

It is that the man who was tricked was one of the founders of the Loebner Prize, an annual test of artificial conversation in which computers try to fool humans into thinking that they, too, are human.

In other words, one of the world's top chatbot experts had spent two months trying to seduce a computer program.

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme's sources and listen to all the episodes online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

Each year, the Loebner Prize challenges chatbots to pass the Turing test, proposed in 1950 by the British mathematician, codebreaker, and computer pioneer Alan Turing.

In Turing's "imitation game", a judge would communicate through a teleprompter with a human and a computer. The computer's job was to imitate human conversation convincingly enough to persuade the judge.

Turing thought that within 50 years, computers would be able to fool 30% of human judges after five minutes of conversation.

He was not far off. It actually took 64 years, although experts continue to argue about whether "Eugene Goostman" - the computer program that was trumpeted as passing the Turing test in 2014 - really counts.

Like Ivana, Goostman managed expectations by claiming not to be a native English speaker. He said he was a 13-year-old kid from Odessa in Ukraine.

One of the first and most famous early chatbots, Eliza, would not have passed the Turing Test - but did, with just a few lines of code, successfully imitate a human non-directional therapist.

Named after Eliza Doolittle, the unworldly heroine of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, she - it? - was programmed in the mid-1960s by Joseph Weizenbaum.

If you typed, "my husband made me come here", Eliza might simply reply, "your husband made you come here". If you mentioned feeling angry, Eliza might ask, "do you think coming here will help you not to feel angry?". Or she might simply say, "please go on".

People did not care that Eliza was not human: they seemed pleased that someone would listen to them without judgement or trying to sleep with them.

Weizenbaum's secretary famously asked him to leave the room so that she could talk to Eliza in private.

 

A contemporary article in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease mused that "several hundred patients an hour could be handled by a computer system". Supervising an army of bots, the human therapist would be far more efficient.

And indeed, cognitive behavioural therapy is now administered by chatbots, such as Woebot, designed by a clinical psychologist, Alison Darcy. There is no pretence that they are human.

Weizenbaum himself was horrified by the idea that people would settle for so poor a substitute for human interaction. But like Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein, he had created something beyond his control.

Chatbots are now ubiquitous, handling a growing number of complaints and enquiries.

Babylon Health is a chatbot that quizzes people about their medical symptoms and decides whether they should be referred to a doctor.

Amelia talks directly to the customers of some banks, but is used by US company Allstate Insurance to provide information to the call centre workers which they use while talking to customers.

And voice-controlled programmes like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant interpret our requests and speak back, with the simple goal of sparing us from stabbing clumsily at tiny screens.

Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human, a book about the Turing test, points out that most modern chatbots do not even try to pass it.

There are exceptions: Ivana-esque chatbots were used by Ashley Madison, a website designed to facilitate extramarital affairs, to hide the fact that very few human women used the site.

It seems we are less likely to notice a chatbot is not human when it plugs directly into our libido.

Another tactic is to wind us up. The MGonz chatbot tricks people by starting an exchange of insults. Politics - perhaps most notoriously the 2016 US election campaign - is well-seasoned with social media chatbots pretending to be outraged citizens, tweeting lies and insulting memes.

But generally chatbots are happy to present as chatbots. Seeming human is hard.

Commercial bots have largely ignored that challenge, and instead specialise in doing small tasks well - solving straightforward problems, and passing on the complex cases to a real person.

The economist Adam Smith explained in the late 1700s that productivity is built on a process of dividing up labour into small specialised tasks. Modern chatbots work on the same principle.

This logic leads economists today to argue that automation reshapes jobs rather than destroying them. Jobs are sliced into tasks. Computers take over the routine tasks and humans supply the creativity and adaptability.

That is what we observe, for example, with the digital spreadsheet, the cash machine or the self-checkout kiosk. Chatbots give us another example.

But we must be wary of the risk that as consumers or producers - and perhaps even as ordinary citizens - we contort ourselves to fit the computers.

We use the self-checkout, even though a chat with a shop assistant might lift our mood.

We post status updates - or just click an emoji - that are filtered by social media algorithms; as with Eliza, we are settling for the feeling that someone is listening.

Christian argues that we humans should view this as a challenge to raise our game. Let the computers take over the call centres. Is that not better than forcing a robot made of flesh-and-blood to stick to a script, frustrating everyone involved?

We might hope that rather than trying or failing to fool humans, better chatbots will save time for everyone - freeing us up to talk more meaningfully to each other for real.

The author writes the Financial Times's Undercover Economist column. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme's sources and listen to all the episodes online or subscribe to the programme podcast. BBC

 
 

Other News

.
VN cities needs strict measures to persuade residents to abandon old polluting motorbikes
VN cities needs strict measures to persuade residents to abandon old polluting motorbikes
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  12/09/2020 

Old vehicles are one of the major reasons behind the serious air pollution in urban areas.

Vietnam's top 10 research institutions in the fields of natural science
Vietnam's top 10 research institutions in the fields of natural science
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

The Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) remains the leading unit in the number of international publications across the country during the period from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.

Photo of Google’s made-in-Vietnam smartphone Pixel 4a leaked
Photo of Google’s made-in-Vietnam smartphone Pixel 4a leaked
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

This is Google’s latest smartphone model, which was first introduced to the market in early August after multiple delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Man prosecuted for keeping large number of rare tortoises
Man prosecuted for keeping large number of rare tortoises
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

A man in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak has been prosecuted for illegally keeping up to 127 rare tortoises.

‘Make in Vietnam’ tool helps find ransomware
‘Make in Vietnam’ tool helps find ransomware
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

Decrypting and identifying ransomware and checking for malicious files are features of two new "Make in Vietnam" tools provided free of charge by the National Cyber Security Monitoring Center (NCSC).

Online game industry: VN still imports games after more than 15 years
Online game industry: VN still imports games after more than 15 years
FEATUREicon  09/09/2020 

Vietnam's online game market still has not seen a breakthrough policy that would allow it to develop well, even though it began developing more than 15 years ago.

Who are the eSports prodigies in Vietnam?
Who are the eSports prodigies in Vietnam?
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  10/09/2020 

Although they are very young, the following people have affirmed their high positions and names in the fields of eSports.

Vietnamese eSports players with highest income in H1
Vietnamese eSports players with highest income in H1
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  10/09/2020 

Esports has become a high-income sport for young people with passion and knowledge for online games.

Network operators that provide 'trash' sims will not receive licenses for new services
Network operators that provide 'trash' sims will not receive licenses for new services
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  08/09/2020 

The Ministry of Information and Communications has (MIC) warned that it has asked the Prime Minister to clearly define the responsibilities of the heads of mobile network operators that allow ‘trash’ SIMs to circulate in the market.

Government aims to set an example in reducing plastic waste
Government aims to set an example in reducing plastic waste
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  07/09/2020 

Vietnam is the fourth largest plastic polluter in the world. Each year, up to 700,000 tonnes of plastic waste is thrown away and not recycled properly.

One man charged in biggest ever rhino horn smuggling case
One man charged in biggest ever rhino horn smuggling case
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  07/09/2020 

The People's Procuracy of Hanoi on September 6 approved a decision to prosecute a man in connection with the largest ever rhino horn smuggling ring in Vietnam, with a total volume of up to 126.5 kg.

NA deputies propose combining seven environment licenses into one
NA deputies propose combining seven environment licenses into one
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  06/09/2020 

Many National Assembly (NA) deputies have proposed integrating seven types of administrative procedures related to the environment into one license, 

The richest self-made streamers in Vietnam
The richest self-made streamers in Vietnam
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  08/09/2020 

With stable incomes during the Covid-19 pandemic and large fanbases, streaming is a job pursued by many young people, but only a few are hugely successful at this moment. .

Communities may be granted power to monitor environmental protection activities
Communities may be granted power to monitor environmental protection activities
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  06/09/2020 

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is considering revising the Law on Environmental Protection which took effect in 2014.

HCM City aims to sort out waste woes
HCM City aims to sort out waste woes
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  05/09/2020 

Rapid urbanisation and high population density are putting pressure on HCM City in the management and treatment of waste.

Young people look to live streaming as source of high income
Young people look to live streaming as source of high income
FEATUREicon  06/09/2020 

Fame and high incomes have prompted many young people to offer streaming content on internet platforms.

Vietnam eyes development of smart cities
Vietnam eyes development of smart cities
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  04/09/2020 

Smart cities hold the answer to the modern world's problems including rising population, pollution, traffic congestion, climate change and even global-scale disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic, according to experts. 

New-born wild elephant joins herd in Dong Nai
New-born wild elephant joins herd in Dong Nai
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  04/09/2020 

The Dong Nai Provincial Forest Ranger Department on September 2 announced that a newborn elephant has been spotted in a forest in Dinh Quan District.
 

Vietnamese, Australian scientists stepping up innovation in the face of COVID-19
Vietnamese, Australian scientists stepping up innovation in the face of COVID-19
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  04/09/2020 

Scientists from Australia’s University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and its partners in Vietnam are stepping up activities to carry out cooperation projects between the two sides amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vietnam 42nd in global innovation index
Vietnam 42nd in global innovation index
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  07/09/2020 

Vietnam ranked 42nd among 131 economies for the second consecutive year in the 2020 Global Innovation Index (GII), the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) has announced.

 
 
 
Leave your comment on an article

OR QUICK LOGIN