A sculpture of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park by Stephen Kettle. Photo: Steve Parker / Flickr
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Supercomputer passes Turing Test by convincing judges it’s a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy

A computer programme has succeeded in passing the Turing Test, 65 years after it was first conceived of by the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

Wartime cryptographer Alan Turing’s iconic question – “can machines think?” – was put to the test once again at the Royal Society’s Turing Test 2014 competition in London. Supercomputer “Eugene Goostman” managed to fool 33 per cent of judges into thinking it’s a human.

The test, proposed by mathematician Alan Turing in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, understands its limitations. Defining “think” is not an easy task. He instead replaced the question with something more tangible – can a computer successfully convince an observer that it’s human?

Eugene can do just that. In a five-minute question-and-answer text chat – with no limitations of topic – a third of judges believed the program to be a real human. Until now, no computer has managed to reach the 30 per cent benchmark set by Turing.

The chatbot, brainchild of Russian computer scientist Vladimir Veselov, has an important advantage over its (/his?) competitors – his “personality” is a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. After winning the competition Veselov explained his team’s intentions. “Eugene was ‘born’ in 2001,” he said. “Our main idea was that he can claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn’t know everything. We spent a lot of time developing a character with a believable personality.”

Subject-specific knowledge is rarely a strong point for 13-year-olds, and Eugene has just enough for a brief chat about a wide range of topics. In addition, the bot’s grammatical errors can be put down to speaking English as a second language. With these caveats in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it managed to convince the judges.

The achievement was hailed as a landmark. Roboticist and cybernetics researcher Kevin Warwick, of the University of Reading, which organises the competition, said: “There is no more iconic and controversial milestone than the Turing Test... This milestone will go down in history as one of the most exciting.”

The practical implications of this are ominous. Face-to-face conversations are being progressively replaced by social media – Channel 4 found that the average Briton will text friends and family more regularly than see them face-to-face. If the move to digital media is accompanied by increasingly sophisticated computers, then we need to be sure of who we’re talking to.

Warwick warned: “Having a computer that can trick a human into thinking that someone, or even something, is a person we trust is a wake-up call to cybercrime. The Turing Test is a vital tool for combating that threat.”

Though Matrix-style scenarios of machine domination are still a long way off, it doesn’t take much to imagine the potential for misuse of such machines. Already our online presences give away a huge part of our personalities. A future version of Eugene could plausibly analyse our social media profiles en masse and conjure up a passable imitation of a loved one – enough, say, to start sending requests for pin numbers and passwords.

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile