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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Euston has to be the most horrible station in London, especially before ten in the morning

So off I go to Birmingham, the city where J G Ballard meets Captain Kirk.

A friend posts an ad for the John Lewis Soft Touch Washable Mattress Topper on a social medium. She doesn’t usually post adverts. “This actually will change your life,” she writes, “in the sense that you will not get out of bed and your muscles will atrophy and you will be penniless.”

I am tempted, I must say. Lately I have simply not been getting out of bed. The trick is to wake up at, say, eight in the morning, and then utilise that early-morning grogginess to go back to sleep. That way you wake up again around noon feeling deranged from the extra-weird dreams you’ve been having. The one where I stole my ex-girlfriend Debbie Milton from Prince Charles, whom she had unwisely married, and escaped with her in a white Rolls-Royce while an enraged Greg Chappell chased after us was quite something. (All details true, promise.)

But Saturday comes and I have to get out of bed because I am off to Birmingham. Why Birmingham? Because I’m being paid to. I am also chairing a talk between Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received, and Frank Witzel, a German author of whom I know nothing, but the title of whose prize-winning (untranslated) novel, The Invention of the Red Army Faction By a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969, is suggestive of greatness to follow.

My train is at quarter to ten in the morning. That is horribly early, and it’s from Euston. Euston has to be the most horrible station in London. Crammed with fast-food outlets and shops selling tat, it is a wholly commercialised space, beneath which the trains hulk in confinement on their platforms like trapped beasts. They are also mostly Virgin trains, and bitter experience has taught me that these are unreliable and that one should never, under any circumstances, use their toilets. It’s best to Go before or, at a pinch, to soil oneself. After all, using one more or less amounts to the same thing.

I don’t have much experience of Birmingham, bitter or otherwise. I once gave a talk at Birmingham City University and was distracted by the Ballardian architecture of the place and by an audience member’s beauty, so much so, in the latter case, that I could not speak for a couple of minutes. But my attention is drawn to the fact that the Star Trek convention is taking place at the National Exhibition Centre in the city at the same time, and I think that as my event ends at around three I’ll skip over to the convention and, for a mere £15, have myself photographed on the set of the original Enterprise, sitting in the Captain’s chair.

I would have done anything for Captain James T Kirk when I was a child, and to this day you can catch me, from time to time, punching light switches with the fleshy part of my fist, the way he answers the internal comm-system in the TV series.

But it turns out, I learn from a friend who has had the same idea but actually committed himself to it, that there is a huge entry fee and the queues for the Captain’s chair are “apocalyptic”. So I decide not to go, and ask the hotel staff instead where the nearest decent old man pub is. They steer me in the direction of the Shakespeare round the corner.

This splendid pub huddles amid another Ballardian cityscape of car parks and stunted skyscrapers. The barman is nice, but does not know how to pronounce “Laphroaig”. “I wouldn’t even try,” he says. I teach him. It occurs to me that the whisky in the bottle is probably older than most of the buildings around it.

Why do we do this to cities? The view from my hotel is of a vast building site, behind which the few survivors of Birmingham’s Victorian heritage cluster like exhibits in a freak show: “See the Amazing Buildings Built More Than Twenty Years Ago!!” Still, at least Birmingham Library is, as modern buildings go, rather cool: and then I realise this is because the outside is modelled on the Sam Browne belt worn by Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

I sigh at my nerdiness and take my place on stage. The chair, I decide, is suitably captainesque, and in front of us lies the flag, blue with yellow stars, of another federation, different from the one Gene Roddenberry dreamt of. I remember being excited, as a child, about the future, thinking of the progress we would make as it happened. The desire to go home, and dream, returns.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood