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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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.