Meet the man who wants total unemployment for all human beings in the world

Hugh Loebner is offering researchers $100,000 to develop a computer that thinks like a human. But is that really the best use of artificial intelligence?

Take a moment to salute the majesty of human conversation. When we talk to each other, whether it’s about last night’s TV or the wisdom of a military strike on Syria, we are doing something far harder than sending a rocket to the moon. We did the moonshot decades ago but we still can’t make a machine that will hold a decent conversation.
On 14 September, researchers will gathered in Derry, Northern Ireland, to demonstrate their latest efforts. If any of them has created a machine that successfully mimics a human, they will leave $100,000 richer.
The money is being put up by Hugh Loebner, a New York based philanthropist. His goal, he says, is total unemployment for all human beings throughout the world. He wants robots to do all the work. And the first step towards that is apparently to develop computers that seem human when you chat to them.
It’s not a new idea. Alan Turing is credited with the first explicit outline of what is now called the Turing test. A human judge sits down at a computer and has a typed conversation with an entity that responds to whatever the judge types. If that entity is a computer, but the judge thinks it’s a person, the conversational computer program passes the test.
At the Derry event, the programs won’t compete directly. Instead, the judges will enter a conversation at two terminals, one of which conveys the thoughts of a human being, the other one being controlled by a program. The judge will decide which seems more human; if it’s the computer, that program goes through to the next round, where the challenges get harder.
So far, no one has won the big prize but every year the most convincing program wins a smaller amount. The creator of the last program to be rumbled this year will walk away with 4,000 of Loebner’s dollars.
Many people in this research field think the competition is a waste of time. The founder of MIT’s artificial intelligence (AI) laboratory, Marvin Minsky, once offered to pay $100 to anyone who can convince Loebner to withdraw his prize fund. Minsky’s problem is that the Loebner Prize gives AI a bad name. The programs are not convincing for long – steer the conversation the right way and you can unseat them fairly easily (you can see last year’s conversations here). Yet AI is in fact becoming rather useful.
Computers may not be able to hold a conversation with human beings, but algorithms that adapt “intelligently” to circumstances are starting to hit the streets: Google’s self-driving cars run on AI. The way phone calls are routed through a network relies on other autonomous, flexible programs. Email spam filters, speech-recognition software, stock-market trades and even some medical diagnoses routinely employ machines that seem to think for themselves.
Where the Loebner Prize is most useful is probably in providing a check on our enthusiasm. Researchers have created AI programs designed to look at CCTV footage and decide whether a crime is about to be committed. A rapidly moving limb suggests an assault taking place. Spotting a gait associated with fast running can be interpreted as someone fleeing a crime scene.
Similar innovations have been tried on the London Underground – a program looks for “suspicious” patterns of movement which indicate that someone might be preparing a terrorist attack or be about to jump under a train. Once the program has decided there is a risk, it will alert the authorities.
Though AI programs remain as flawed as those attempting to hold a conversation, let’s hope we won’t be tempted to cede all our liberties to them.
The development of artificial intelligence is becoming more competitive. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.