Saturday, 27 September 2014

Hidden human experience in a Turing test: Two vets from London meet the Turing machines

Guest Post by 'hidden humans' in Session 6 Turing test experiment, at The Royal Society, London on Saturday 7 June 2014.

On a warm sunny afternoon in June, two vets from London (a husband and wife team) quizzically entered The Royal Society Building on Carlton House Terrace to take part in the Turing test.  Whilst scaling the flight of stone steps from the Mall, surmounted by the statue of Frederick Augustus, "the grand old Duke of York", we chatted about how many Fellows of The Royal Society we could identify and then concluded we didn’t really know much about the history and maybe Sir Isaac Newton was a fellow? Sadly we only discovered that Alan Turing was himself a Fellow after leaving the building!

We were honoured to be invited by a friend who was part of the organisational team to participate in a Turing Test on 7th June 2014, a particularly poignant date as it took place on the 60th anniversary of Turing's death, nearly six months after he was given a posthumous royal pardon. We had heard much about artificial intelligence and the work by Professor Kevin Warwick, a Visiting Professor at the University of Reading and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at Coventry University, and his team and wondered whether the people involved in this field who look particularly cyber like or whether Professor Warwick would show us his implanted microchip? We had also heard that actor Robert Llewellyn, who played robot Kryten in the sci-fi comedy TV series Red Dwarf, was one of the judges so being fans, hoped to glimpse him and wanted to see him in costume. (He wasn’t).

The instructions on arrival for the test were cloak and dagger like and we were under strict instructions not to reveal to other people in the building that we were hidden humans – but this was overcome at the registration desk when a member of the team treated us like VIPs. We feared our cover had been blown as he ushered us into a waiting lounge where some other people (we presumed of the general public) were watching some of the live Turing test conversations on a large screen. There were numerous stands from the universities which were taking part in the project and so we read with interest the AI projects being studied by both under and post graduates and were pleased to see that robots were being developed within the medical field to help humans, rather than take over the planet. At our allotted session time we were ushered into the Test room and designated a PC each, there were around 6 PC terminals in a very grand room; these modern ICT devices did appear slightly out of place with the rest of the historic nature of the building and the very grand (and dark) oil paintings of famous fellows which adorned the walls. The physicist and mechanical engineer, James Watt, was peering down at us as we typed our answers....

After meeting several other of the hidden humans (who included a jazz musician) and Professor Warwick (who also appeared human and not cyborg like) we were invited to take refreshments either before or between test sessions. Being aware of the importance of hydration status and keeping glucose levels up to maximise our own concentration and performance it seemed rude not to partake of the feast of sandwiches and tasty cakes, scones, clotted cream and tea/coffee!

Despite being sent instructions and previous reference material about what the Turing Test consisted of prior to our visit (and also following some blogs on line), we hadn’t really truly grasped what our role would be. So in our minds “We hidden humans would be talking to computers and someone else (a judge) would be trying to decipher the conversation between the two of us and would then decide who was the AI and who was the Hidden Human” So please bear this in mind when interpreting our answers, we honestly thought we were communicating with robots and got quite irritated at times at some of their silly questions, slowness in replying to typed answers (especially considering we thought they had gigantic IQs) and deliberate spelling mistakes!
The question sessions took on several themes, quite a few of them focusing on being a student from Russia and what we could recommend to do as tourists in London? Some questions referred to holiday travels so reminded us of trips to the hairdressers! Many of the questions were plain boring and lost our interest pretty rapidly, so we turned the interview process around and started to question the “thing” (who was actually a judge) who was communicating with us. That could turn out to be entertaining and irritating at the same time.

More interesting questions included:
·         Should all drivers over the age of 70 be banned from driving?
·         Ethical debate about treatment options for genetic conditions?

Irritating questions included those with only a Yes / No answer, those relating to Boris (not sure if this was the mayor of London or the visiting Russian student), persistence in trying to obtain our IDs (which we were instructed not to give away), very childlike spelling and lack of comprehension of words or questions we typed back. The “thing” did not appear to understand irony or sarcasm and would frequently report back that “they did not understand”. However it was equally frustrating when they responded with typographical errors which we could understand, but were left in a quandary as to whether an immediate response would indicate that we were in fact hidden humans?

The experience did help us evaluate ourselves as to “what makes us human?” Is it the fact we have emotions and the ability to respond to ethical dilemmas? What constitutes cognitive processes and ability to reason? Humans and robots can both make errors but do both have the ability to attempt to deceive each other? Time flew by and we were sad to find the Turing Test session was over. We left the team processing the results and will be interested in finding out our own scores. We think they guessed we were human from our answers, but interestingly we thought the judges were robots! This is not the aim of the Turing Test at all and perhaps Alan already knew the answer to the reverse of his question i.e. If a human is mistaken for a computer more than 30% of the time during a series of five minute keyboard conversations it passes the test? Perhaps this happens more frequently than we know it in our ever expanding world of IT technology? We concluded telephone calls and face to face communication is always the best and hiding behind keyboards can have its own drawbacks

Update 9 October 2014:

For another view from 'the hidden human' see Steve Battle's blog post 'I was a hidden human, Or: How Eugene goosed man' here:

What needs to be pointed out is that each hidden human chatted to one human judge only in 5 tests. The hidden humans never chatted to Eugene or the other four machines in any of the five tests each participated in as a 'foil for the machines'. Each judge simultaneously chatted to five pairs of hidden entities, one human and one machine. The judges' task was to unmask the machines and recognise humans. The hidden humans' task was to be themselves and not give up their identity. The machines' purpose was to give satisfactory responses to any and all the questions/statements the judges put to them in five minutes.

Huma Shah