Suresh Menon

Our colum­nist’s com­puter de­vel­ops a mind of its own.

Friday - - Friday Contents -

Writ­ing this col­umn was a strug­gle – my lap­top re­fused to co­op­er­ate ini­tially. I started by key­ing in, “The other day…” but what ap­peared on the screen was, “Eu­gene, Eu­gene, where have you been?” Bizarre.

And then it struck me. My faith­ful re­tainer was try­ing to tell me that his side had be­gun to win the bat­tle.

Eu­gene is Eu­gene Goost­man, a com­puter pro­gramme that man­aged to fool one-third of a group of 30 people into be­liev­ing that it was a real per­son, a 13-year-old Ukrainian, in fact.

You can fool 33.3 per cent of the people 33.3 per cent of the time.

The ex­per­i­ment at Read­ing Univer­sity in­volved five-minute text chats with a group of com­put­ers and real people – the trick was to find out which was which.

With their thumbs fly­ing over mo­bile phones, or head­phones plugged into their ears, or with the look of some­one who knows they have an al­ge­bra test the next day and can’t re­mem­ber whether a straight line is the short­est dis­tance be­tween two points or the long­est, 13-year-olds can of­ten fool you into be­liev­ing they are ro­bots.

If com­put­ers need to fool us, the eas­i­est way to do so is to pre­tend they are 13-year-olds. They don’t an­swer ques­tions di­rectly, just like Eu­gene. Then they pick on a word you may have used and find a new use for it in their re­sponse. And quite of­ten they ask ques­tions that have noth­ing to do with the topic be­ing dis­cussed. This was how Eu­gene Goost­man fooled real people, many of them doubt­less par­ents of 13-year-olds them­selves.

“What class are you in?” I can imag­ine one of the sci­en­tists tex­ting Eu­gene, and get­ting in re­ply some­thing like, “I think Justin Bieber is great, don’t you?”

“Aha!” says the sci­en­tist. “This one is avoid­ing the ques­tion. He must be a 13-year-old, per­haps from Ukraine.”

Three years ago, a com­puter named Wat­son (soon we shall have a doc­toral the­sis on the names of com­put­ers writ­ten, per­haps, by com­put­ers them­selves) beat two world cham­pi­ons

If com­put­ers need to fool us, the eas­i­est way to do so is to pre­tend they are 13-year-olds

in the game show Jeop­ardy. And now this. No won­der my lap­top was re­fus­ing to co­op­er­ate, and in­dulging in some sar­casm with byte. Per­haps it was smil­ing too – I couldn’t be sure.

So how did you com­plete this col­umn, I hear you ask. A fair ques­tion.

I put my lap­top in its place by ar­gu­ing the op­po­site. It is not that ma­chines have got smarter. People have got dumber, I wrote in a man­ner that even pre­tend 13-year-olds can un­der­stand.

Com­put­ers have a Tur­ing test of their own. Once mine worked out that this was com­ing from a real per­son, it quite sim­ply shut up.

And so here we are…

Suresh Menon is a writer based in In­dia. In his youth he set out to change the world but later de­cided to leave it as it is

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