Rise of the machines

Alan Turing, the great World War Two codebreaker and computer pioneer, devised what he called the Turing Test to determine whether a computer is truly intelligent or not.

The test consists of exchanging blind messages with a hidden entity, and trying to decide correctly whether you are communicating with a human or a machine.   The test has already been passed at least once, by a program devised by a 13-year-old boy in Ukrainea team of Russians posing as a 13-year-old boy in Ukraine.

The science fiction writer Charles Stross, in his novel Rule 34, predicted the rise of autonomous artificial intelligence through the co-evolution of spam and spam filters.  After all, what is spam but a Turing Test—that is, an attempt to convince you that a computer-generated message is sent a genuine human communication?   I greatly enjoyed the novel, but I’m not worried that this is a real possibility.

robot-image_largeWhat we should be worried about is the delegation of human decision-making to computers as if the computers really were autonomous intelligences and not machines responding to highly complex rules (algorithms).

I’ve read that European airlines are much more inclined than American airlines to led planes fly on automatic pilot.  The computer is by definition not prone to human error, so it probably would provide a smoother ride.  But what happens in an emergency that the computer is not programmed to deal with? The human pilot is less able to deal with it.

Much stock trading is done automatically, by computers responding instantaneously to market data as it comes in.  This is harmless if done some small trading company with an algorithm its partners think is better than anybody else’s.  But when there are a lot of traders using the same algorithm, then the automatic process can crash the market, and it has.

American drone warfare is conducted partly by computer algorithm.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble analyze your book-buying habits so as to guess what books you’d probably like.  The same kind of software is used to analyze behavior of people in the tribal areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen and guess which is likely to be an insurgent fighter.

The technology is not the problem.  The problem is human beings using technology as a way to avoid responsibility for their judgments.


Turing test breakthrough as super-computer becomes first to convince us it’s human by Andrew Griffin of The Independent.

A Venture Capital Firm Just Named An Algorithm To Its Board of Directors by Rob Wile for Business Insider.

From teledildonics to interactive porn: the future of sex in a digital age by Sam Leith for The Guardian.

P.S. [6/11/14]  Now that I’ve seen samples of the AI program, I don’t think I would have been deceived by it.  Click on Fake Victory for Artificial Intelligence by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg View.


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