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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Age verification rules won't just affect porn sites – they'll harm our ability to discuss sex

Relying on censorship to avoid talking about sex lets children down.

The British have a long history of censoring sex. In 1580, politician William Lambarde drafted the first bill to ban "licentious" and "hurtful... books, pamphlets, ditties, songs, and other works that promote the art of lascivious ungodly love". Last week, the UK government decided to have another crack at censorship, formally announcing that age verification for all online pornographic content will be mandatory from April 2018.

It is unclear at this point what this mandatory check will entail, but it's expected that you will need to submit your credit card details to a site before being allowed to access adult content (credit cards can’t be issued to under-18s).

The appointed regulator will almost certainly be the British Board of Film Classification who will have the authority to levy fines of up to £250,000 or shut down sites that do not comply. These measures are being directly linked to research conducted by the NSPCC, the Children’s Commissioner and the University of Middlesex in 2016, which surveyed more than 1,000 11 to 16-year-olds about viewing online pornography and found over half had accessed it. 

Digital minister Matt Hancock said age verification "means that while we can enjoy the freedom of the web, the UK will have the most robust internet child protection measures of any country in the world". And who can argue with that? No sane adult would think that it’s a good idea for children to watch hardcore pornography. And because we all agree kids should be watching Peppa Pig rather than The Poonies, the act has been waved through virtually unchallenged.

So, let’s put the issue of hardcore pornography to one side, because surely we are all in agreement. I’m asking you to look at the bigger picture. It’s not just children who will be censored and it’s not just Pornhub and Redtube which will be forced to age check UK viewers. This act will potentially censor any UK site that carries adult content, which is broadly defined by the BBFC as "that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal".

I am a UK academic and research the history of sexuality. I curate the online research project www.thewhoresofyore.com, where academics, activists, artists and sex workers contribute articles on all aspects of sexuality in the hope of joining up conversations around sex that affect everyone. The site also archives many historical images; from the erotic brothel frescoes of Pompeii to early Victorian daguerreotypes of couples having sex. And yet, I do not consider myself to be a porn baron. These are fascinating and important historical documents that can teach us a great deal about our own attitudes to sex and beauty.

The site clearly signposts the content and asks viewers to click to confirm they are over 18, but under the Digital Economy Act this will not be enough. Although the site is not for profit and educational in purpose, some of the historical artefacts fit the definition of  "pornographic’" and are thereby liable to fall foul of the new laws.

And I’m not the only one; erotic artists, photographers, nude models, writers, sex shops, sex education sites, burlesque sites, BDSM sites, archivists of vintage erotica, and (of course) anyone in the adult industry who markets their business with a website, can all be termed pornographic and forced to buy expensive software to screen their users or risk being shut down or fined. I have contacted the BBFC to ask if my research will be criminalised and blocked, but was told "work in this area has not yet begun and so we are not in a position to advice [sic] you on your website". No one is able to tell me what software will need to be purchased if I am to collect viewers' credit card details, how I would keep them safe, or how much this would all cost. The BBFC suggested I contact my MP for further details. But, she doesn’t know either.

Before we even get into the ethical issues around adults having to enter their credit card details into a government database in order to look at legal content, we need to ask: will this work? Will blocking research projects like mine make children any safer? Well, no. The laws will have no power over social media sites such as Twitter, Snapchat and Periscope which allow users to share pornographic images. Messenger apps will still allow users to sext, as well as stream, send and receiving pornographic images and videos. Any tech savvy teenager knows that Virtual Private Network (VPN) software will circumvent UK age verification restrictions, and the less tech savvy can always steal their parents' credit card details.

The proposed censorship is unworkable and many sites containing nudity will be caught in the crossfire. If we want to keep our children "safe" from online pornography, we need to do something we British aren’t very good at doing; we need to talk openly and honestly about sex and porn. This is a conversation I hope projects like mine can help facilitate. Last year, Pornhub (the biggest porn site in the world) revealed ten years of user data. In 2016, Brits visited Pornhub over 111 million times and 20 per cent of those UK viewers are women. We are watching porn and we need to be open about this. We need to talk to each other and we need to talk to our kids. If you’re relying on government censorship to get you out of that tricky conversation, you are letting your children down.

The NSPCC report into children watching online pornography directly asked the participants about the effectiveness of age verification, and said the children "pointed out its limitations". When asked what intervention would most benefit them, this was the overwhelming response: "Whether provided in the classroom, or digitally, young people wanted to be able to find out about sex and relationships and about pornography in ways that were safe, private and credible." I suggest we listen to the very people we are trying to protect and educate, rather than eliminate. 

Dr Kate Lister researches the history of sexuality at Leeds Trinity University