In a breakthrough of engineering a computer has successfully passed the infamous ‘Turing test‘. You may have already read the headlines about how this is the beginning of the movie Terminator and the downfall of humanity, or if you haven’t you should because it makes for a good read. Before we explore the implications for humanity what exactly is this turing test and why do we care?
The turing test was devised by the legendary second world war code breakingAlan Turning (and great forefather of modern computing). The test states that if a machine was indistinguishable from a human then it is reasonable to say this machine is thinking. In other words in a blind test if humans can be convinced that the machine is a human the test succeeds. In this instance the test, administered by Reading University in the UK, requires over 30% of the humans in the test to be fooled by the computer over a period of 5 minutes. A number of systems were tested but the winner, posing as 13 year old Eugene Goostman, succeeded in convincing 33% of the participants. Professor Warwick of the University of Reading added “A true Turing test does not set the topics or questions prior to the conversations” and that “we are therefore proud to declare that Alan Turing’s test was passed for the first time”. Of course, news stories have now popped up left right and centre explaining that this is the end of the Internet as we know it and the beginning of the age of the terminators. Not exactly how I would put it.
This is undeniably a significant announcement and some very impressive work from the developers but this computer is a long way from becoming self aware, hacking all of the world’s systems and building an army of robots. I was at Cheltenham Science Festival today doing a few live hacking demonstrations and the topic came up in a mixed audience spanning age groups and backgrounds. Some found this advancement remarkably unsurprising, as if to say “of course computers are that powerful” where others found it terrifying or simply incredible. Computers have grown more and more powerful over the years. Indeed, only over the last 10 years of my information security career they have accelerated (and miniaturised) remarkably, null . As humans we can “think” as we are adaptive and can adjust and change the nature of our programming, a great (but unlikely unsurmountable) challenge for a machine. The turing test is one gate to be passed in the journey to overcoming this limitation.
What might these kinds of advances mean for us in the shorter term? null . Instead of the predictable offer of 42 million dollars from a Nigerian banker (or any of the other remarkably daft scams that have an astoundingly high success rate) perhaps the bots could build ‘friends’ and over a series of messages convince someone to click or hand over sensitive data. null . Such convincing bots could make automatic security filtering of spam or unwanted content significantly more difficult too. Of course this technology could also have many helpful, legitimate uses such as perhaps manning a customer support role. This could genuinely lead to a place where machines take on more roles from humans, but we certainly aren’t there yet.
In summary, this is an impressive mile stone for a computer (or Eugene Goostman who perhaps is a 13 year old boy pretending to be a computer pretending to be a boy) null . Congratulations to the team involved. Follow @jameslyne on Twitter.