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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The answer to the antibiotics crisis might be inside your nose

The medical weapons we have equipped ourselves with are losing their power. But scientists scent an answer. 

They say there’s a hero in everyone. It turns out that actually, it resides within only about ten percent of us. Staphylococcus lugdunensis may be the species of bacteria that we arguably don’t deserve, but it is the one that we need.

Recently, experts have cautioned that we may be on the cusp of a post-antibiotic era. In fact, less than a month ago, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on a woman who died from a "pan-resistant" disease – one that survived the use of all available antibiotics. Back in 1945, the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, warned during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech against the misuse of antibiotics. More recently, Britain's Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies has referred to anti-microbial resistance as “the greatest future threat to our civilisation”.

However, hope has appeared in the form of "lugdunin", a compound secreted by a species of bacteria found in a rather unlikely location – the human nose.

Governments and health campaigners alike may be assisted by a discovery by researchers at the University of Tubingen in Germany. According to a study published in Nature, the researchers had been studying Staphylococcus aureus. This is the bacteria which is responsible for so-called "superbug": MRSA. A strain of MRSA bacteria is not particularly virulent, but crucially, it is not susceptible to common antibiotics. This means that MRSA spreads quickly from crowded locations where residents have weaker immune systems, such as hospitals, before becoming endemic in the wider local community. In the UK, MRSA is a factor in hundreds of deaths a year. 

The researchers in question were investigating why S. aureus is not present in the noses of some people. They discovered that another bacteria, S. lugdunensis, was especially effective at wiping out its opposition, even MRSA. The researchers named the compound created and released by the S. lugdunensis "lugdunin".

In the animal testing stage, the researchers observed that the presence of lugdunin was successful in radically reducing and sometimes purging the infection. The researchers subsequently collected nasal swabs from 187 hospital patients, and found S. aureus on roughly a third of the swabs, and S. lugdunensis on up to 10 per cent of them. In accordance with previous results, samples that contained both species saw an 80 per cent decrease of the S. aureus population, in comparison to those without lugdunin.

Most notably, the in vitro (laboratory) testing phase provided evidence that the new discovery is also useful in eliminating other kinds of superbugs, none of which seemed to develop resistance to the new compound. The authors of the study hypothesised that lugdunin had evolved  “for the purpose of bacterial elimination in the human organism, implying that it is optimised for efficacy and tolerance at its physiological site of action". How it works, though, is not fully understood. 

The discovery of lugdunin as a potential new treatment is a breakthrough on its own. But that is not the end of the story. It holds implications for “a new concept of finding antibiotics”, according to Andreas Peschel, one of the bacteriologists behind the discovery.

The development of antibiotics has drastically slowed in recent years. In the last 50 years, only two new classes of this category of medication have been released to the market. This is due to the fact almost all antibiotics in use are derived from soil bacteria. By contrast, the new findings record the first occurrence of a strain of bacteria that exists within human bodies. Some researchers now suggest that the more hostile the environment to bacterial growth, the more likely it may be for novel antibiotics to be found. This could open up a new list of potential areas in which antibiotic research may be carried out.

When it comes to beating MRSA, there is hope that lugdunin will be our next great weapon. Peschel and his fellow collaborators are in talks with various companies about developing a medical treatment that uses lugdunin.

Meanwhile, in September 2016, the United Nations committed itself to opposing the spread of antibiotic resistance. Of the many points to which the UN signatories have agreed, possibly the most significant is their commitment to “encourage innovative ways to develop new antibiotics”. 

The initiative has the scope to achieve a lot, or dissolve into box ticking exercise. The discovery of lugdunin may well be the spark that drives it forward. Nothing to sniff about that. 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman