The Turing Test and what makes us human

Each year, the Loebner Prize competition takes place where judges are asked to interact through computer terminals with humans and computer programs. The judges then vote on whether they were talking with a human or a computer in this version of the Turing Test.

Two things struck me in this article:

1. The writer frames this issue of “mind vs. machine” as a more fundamental question about what separates humans from other animals:

Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls “The Sentence.” Specifically, The Sentence reads like this:

The human being is the only animal that ______.The story of humans’ sense of self is, you might say, the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence. Except now it’s not just the animals that we’re worried about.

We once thought humans were unique for using language, but this seems less certain each year; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this claim also erodes with ongoing animal-behavior research; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.

If this is the case, then the Turing Test, or Ken Jenning’s battle with a computer on Jeopardy!, become the final battleground as humans lose what we thought made us distinct: thinking or reasoning. But this quick definition of human selfhood seems to leave out a very important component: the human search for meaning. Sociologists, like Peter Berger, have talked about this for decades in order to help explain the prevalence of religion. Berger argued that religions arise because people have enduring questions about why the world is the way it is and what their place is in it. Do other animals pose such existential questions? Is spirituality or religiosity what might really separate humans from other animals?

2. As the writer explains his strategy for showing the judges that he is human, he recounts past conversations computer programs have had with humans. Several of these were quite interesting. One program from the 1960s, Eliza, took a more therapeutic approach to dealing with humans:

User: Men are all alike.

Eliza: In what way?

User: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

Eliza: Can you think of a specific example?

User: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here.

User: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

Eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

User: It’s true. I am unhappy.

Eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

User: I need some help, that much seems certain.

Eliza: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

User: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

Eliza: Tell me more about your family.

This program was apparently quite effective in fooling people and some even went off to have therapeutic conversations with this program. Another program acted belligerent at random points and threw some people off.

It sounds like these computer programs will continue to get more sophisticated.

Why we talk so much about the weather

The headline at “Blizzard may be ‘life threatening.’” There were similar headlines throughout the day on the front page of Yahoo! (with the latest version of the story here). Yes, there are predictions for a big storm but why do we talk about the weather so much?

My own thoughts: for the average American adult, the weather is perhaps the only constant in our days that we feel we can’t control. With a certain level of income, most Americans can handle day-to-day matters pretty easily: food is easy to obtain, we have generally large and nice shelters, transportation (by car) is available to many, jobs are decent and give us something to do (even with recent higher unemployment figures). Wars are distant and we know that many in the world face much tougher conditions. But we can’t control the weather. A blizzard bearing down on us reminds us that there are some areas in life of which we can only respond. There is a Christian theme in here if we take a moment to ponder it: we are ultimately not in complete control of our lives, this is okay, and perhaps we should remind ourselves of this more often.

(Additionally, the weather is a common, safe topic that can pull people together. It is hard to be offensive or rude when bringing up the weather. Since we all have to deal with it, it can help bring about group solidarity if we have a neutral topic to fall back on.)