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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.