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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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.