A computer program posing as a young Ukrainian boy managed to pass the famous Turing Test earlier this month, leading to a big debate in the technology world about artificial intelligence. The Turing Test, created by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test in which a group of humans are asked to judge whether or not a computer program is an actual person or just a program by having simple conversation. According to Turing, the benchmark for artificial intelligence is being able to convince 30% of people that it is indeed a person after only five minutes of communication. Apparently, enough people were convinced by the program called Eugene Goostman for it to get a “pass” on the test. Despite obvious issues with humans being fallible and thus having the potential to make mistakes, it at least provides interesting conversation for how technology in A.I. is growing.
Artificial intelligence has been a topic of discussion for as long as the earliest computer systems have existed. Whether in science fiction or in real-life conversations with actual people interested in technology, it has managed to both terrify and excite just about anybody who has considered the idea of computers becoming truly intelligent. The topic is all over our media these days, with films like Transcendence and Her being prime examples of movies speculating about the possibilities of A.I. These films follow classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, which asked similar questions about what counted as intelligence and whether technology becoming this advanced was actually dangerous or not.
It’s important to make the distinction between artificial intelligence and sentient computers. An intelligent agent, which is something that has intelligence, is defined as a system that is able to perceive the environment it is in and make decisions to increase the chance of success or survival. Every animal you’ve ever met, including humans, is intelligent because it is able to make decisions rather than operate purely on protocol like a traditional computer.
Sentience goes even further than intelligence, and that means that something has enough self-awareness to actually feel and be aware of suffering. If your computer was artificially intelligent and able to have a chat with you, and wound up with hurt feelings because you told it that its desk made it look fat, that would be an example of sentient behavior. There is an ongoing debate among people whether or not animals are even sentient, so it would take a pretty big leap forward in technology to ever have computers with that same key trait.
It seems unlikely that we’ll all be bowing to robot overlords anytime soon, but having a program pass the Turing Test is definitely interesting; it is an important benchmark for how far technology has come. Modern computing has only existed for about 80 years, as the first fully functional computer wasn’t made until between 1936 and 1938, and that computer only had enough memory for 64 words. The progress humans have made in technology just in the last decade alone is proof that we are capable of some pretty incredible things when it comes to computers. We still have a ways to go before we are dealing with intelligent and sentient manmade objects, but that won’t stop us from imagining.