Economics And The Turing Test

(Rick Bookstaber is a senior policy adviser at the SEC. This guest post represents personal opinion from his blog.)

In a recent post I laid the blame for the inadequacies of neoclassical economics and behavioural economics on the failure to take into account human context. By context I mean that humans make decisions that are coloured by their assumptions, experience, agenda, and even their sense of foreboding.

One way for economics to overcome its deficiencies is to take into account these inherently human characteristics. A different route is for people to cast aside these traits and start behaving more like computers. It looks like we might be going down the latter path.

In an article in this month’s Atlantic, Brian Christian recounts his role as a confederate in the annual Loebner competition, which runs the Turing Test to see if computers can fool judges over the course of a five minute conversation conducted via computer console. The humans won this time around, as they have in each of the 20 years the contest has been run. And Christian’s bet is that the computers will not be winners anytime soon because even as computers get faster and more adeptly programmed humans will counterattack with the weapons in their arsenal. One of those, which Christian used to win the event’s prize as the “most human human” (the human who was most often identified correctly as a human), was to interrupt frequently and backtrack to previous points in the conversation the way we do in real conversation. By comparison, the computers far preferred a you-ask-I-answer interrogative approach.

The tendency for the Turing Test to become a competitive game for the humans as well as the computer programmers — that is, where the humans are trying to win rather than ‘be themselves’ within the structure of the game — defeats the test’s intention, which is more or less to have a computer be indistinguishable from a person in a “normal” human interaction: say, a pleasant dinner conversation with a stranger, in which neither party is trying to prove that he is not a computer.

A better Turing Test to overcome the problems introduced in the competitions is to interject a computer into a round of dinner conversations where the human subjects are not made aware that this is occurring. After the fact, subjects are told that some of their companions might have been computers, and only then are they asked to rank the guests by “humanness.”

Apply the same method to other common modes of conversation, moving down the line toward the increasingly vacuous and context-less: e-mail exchanges, then online chat, and finally “texting.” As we go down the line we lose more and more context and depth. Each back and forth depends, if anything, on fewer and shorter prior communications. Tweets, which seem like the lower-limit of texting, are virtually “stateless,” meaning that they often spew forth apropos of nothing. As we descend into these more modern forms of communication it becomes easier and easier for a computer to “win” the Turing Test.

To illustrate this point, Christian relates an exchange between a computer and an unwitting human, where the human engaged in a conversation for an hour and a half, and then broke away without ever realising there wan no human on the other end. (The dialogue, presented in part in this link, is one of the funniest things I have ever read). And this occurred in 1989:

Mark Humphrys, a 21-year-old University College Dublin undergraduate, put online a 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. His program might have just shown how to pass the Turing Test. When it lacked any clear cue for what to say, MGonz fell back on things like “You are obviously an arsehole,” or “Ah type something interesting or shut up.” It’s a stroke of genius because, as becomes painfully clear from reading the MGonz transcripts, argument is stateless—that is, unanchored from all context. Each remark after the first is only about the previous remark. If a program can induce us to sink to this level, of course it can pass the Turing Test.

We are indeed sinking to that level, not by becoming more verbally abusive, but by becoming less verbal, period. We are moving as a society toward the vacuous and non-contextual as we embrace new modes of conversation.

Many have written on the vacuousness of IM and SMS-based conversation. But it is not depth of content that differentiates humans from machines. A computer can already beat us in terms of content. One human in a previous Loebner competition was pegged as a computer because she knew more Shakespeare than the judges thought was humanly possible, but not more than what they thought was possible for a computer. Recently a computer went head-to-head with past Jeopardy champions and won handily.

For humans, context matters more than content. A computer does not have existential angst. It does not hold grudges or have its reactions shaped by its childhood experience. It does not respond to a remark based on the previous conversations and how that colours the sense of the other person’s interests and emotions. These dimensions of human interaction are flattened as we sink into the texting, twittering world.

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