Tag Archives: Turing Test

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Giants That Struggle With The Idea of Personhood

The hard truth is that many rich mega-giants have lost the will to engage directly with their customers.

There was a time when major organizations had enough employees to deal with customer problems. Name the organization—a media outlet, a service provider for a utility, a business dependent on selling products and services—and there was usually a person ready to receive a question or complaint. “Customer service” meant a company tried to be available to those with whom they had a relationship. That is still true in business-to-business communications. For example, Ford certainly expects that a supplier will take their calls. But the public and social media side of the ledger usually offers no such chances. In a quiet revolution, A.I. robots have taken over customer relations while the rest of an organization sits behind walls of anonymity. Thousands of employees in the offices of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and scores of other companies are mostly insulated from the people that use their services. Commercial in even modest-sized organizations  are now careful to not list contact information.

There are outstanding exceptions in almost every area.  Amazon still offers phone help. At least a few years ago the electronics giant Onkyo was happy to put me through to an engineer to solve a technical issue. And local businesses show a lot of patience to still deal with customers.  But the “virtual assistants” up and running in most larger enterprises pull the con of giving a person’s name to microchips and algorithms that offer simulations of the human voice or texting, all with the increasingly lifelike lexicons of real human rhetoric. The great leap in speech-mediated A.I. can be awesome, but it has given us a kind of zombie intelligence that can only “think” in binaries and fake comprehension.

All of this takes personhood out of the equation, with real and often sad consequences. Imagine, for example, the fate of a new widow facing a labyrinth of health, state, county and employer bureaucracies to be contacted after the death of her partner. A few will be appropriately responsive.  But others will throw up a filibuster of recorded phone directories and “try again later” messages. Lately even Social Security can’t be bothered to pick up the phone.  And COVID is a poor excuse. If a person can still do interoffice communication with their colleagues, they can still represent an organization to customers or clients.

The hard truth is that many rich mega-giants have lost the will to talk directly with their customers. None of us would think it would be a good use of our time to try to call Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft. Granted, they have a lot of customers.  But most haven’t developed a graded gatekeeping system that would allow private and serious users to reach them.

I a challenge with Google  that is a good case in point. I have two Google e-mail accounts: hardly unique. But in this massive organization’s self-contained world–even using my real name, passwords and my patterns of internet usage–I am still “Person 1” and “Person 2.” And they are pretty sure that one of us is up to no good.  I benefit from using Google Analytics data for this blog. It does what Google does best: track, count and sort. But person 2—who, I swear, looks exactly like me in a mirror—apparently has no business even asking to see the data. Sadly, they think they are being useful to warn Person 1 that Person 2 is trying to break into my account. Ditto for Microsoft, with confounding and insistent new logins to expose what they see as different accounts hacked by robots. In the name of security, the idea of personhood has more or less been lost on them. They think a real person can read laughably smudged CAPTCHA tests. Meanwhile, these companies have moved on to creating networks they are selling as “teams,” apparently not noticing they have yet to master the basics of authentic one-on-one communication.

My more computer savvy friends will tell me there are workarounds for these inconveniences, especially if I am willing to take them on as my second job. But they are missing the point. In many cases there is only a useless “virtual (non)person” to “chat” with. Even a two-year old can detect the fraud of a fake human being passed off as the real thing: the original basis of the previously discussed Turing Test.

To be sure, organizations feel like they are under siege from product users who call insistently because they can barely understand the services they purchased. But these companies have abetted the constant connectivity they now want to run away from.  For sure, Americans have all but surgically implanted their phones in their right hands. Not-so-smart phones have become substitutes and surrogates for many of us. But its all part of their world these giants created, and they need to find better ways to deal with their users as humans.

No wonder electronic games are so popular with more Americans. They can make interacting fun—even if it is just with a machine. At the same time, many of us our losing our capacities to deal directly with others in the kinds of collaborative problem-solving that existed just a few generations ago.

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Turing, And The Bogus Rivalry With Machine-Based Intelligence

IBM's Watson Wikipedia.org
                     IBM’s Watson           Wikipedia.org

In reality, humans have nothing to fear. Most measures of artificial intelligence use the wrong yardsticks.

We are awash in articles, books and films about the coming age of “singularity:” the point at which machines will supposedly duplicate and surpass human intelligence.  For decades it’s been the stuff of science fiction, reaching perhaps its most eloquent expression in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 motion picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The film is still a visual marvel. Who would have thought that Strauss waltzes and images of deep space could be so compatible?  Functionally, the waltzes have the effect of juxtaposing the familiar with a hostile void, making the film a surprising celebration of all things earthbound.  But that’s another story.

The central agent in the film is the HAL-9000 computer that begins to turn off the life support of the crew during a long voyage, mostly because it “thinks” the humans aren’t up to the enormous task facing them.

Kubrick’s vision of very smart computers is also evident in the more recent A.I., Artificial Intelligence (2001), a project started just before his death and eventually brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg.  It’s a dystopian nightmare. In the film intelligent “mechas” (mechanical robots) are generally nicer than the humans who created them.  In pleasant Haddonfield New Jersey, of all places, they are shot on sight for sport.

Fantasies of machine intelligence have lately given way to IBM’s “Big Blue” and “Watson,” mega-computers with amazing memories and—with Watson—a stunning speech recognition capability that is filtering down to all kinds of devices.  If we can talk to machines, aren’t we well on our way to singularity?

For one answer consider the Turing Test, the challenge laid down by the World War II code-breaker Alan Turing. A variation of it has been turned into a recurring world competitions.  The challenge is to construct a “chatterbot” that can pass for a human in blind side-by-side “conversations” that include real people.  For artificial intelligence engineers, the trick is to fool a panel of questioners at least 30 percent of the time over 25 minutes. According to the BBC, a recent winner was a computer from the University of Reading in the U.K. It passed itself off as a Ukrainian teen (“Eugene Goostman”) speaking English as a second language.

In actual fact, humans have nothing to fear.  Most measures of “human like” intelligence such as the Turing Test use the wrong yardsticks. These computers are never embodied. The rich information of non-verbal communication is not present, nor can it be.  Proximate human features are not enough.  For example, Watson’s “face” in its famous Jeopardy challenge a few years ago was a set of cheesy electric lights.  Moreover, these smart machines tend to be asked questions that we would ask of Siri or other informational databases.  What they “know” is often defined as a set of facts, not feelings. And, of course, these machines lack what we so readily reveal in our conversations with others: that we have a sense of self, that we have an accumulated biography of life experiences that shape our reactions and dispositions, and that we want to be understood.

Just the issue of selfhood should remind us of the special status that comes from living through dialogue with others.  A sense of self is complicated, but it includes the critical ability to be aware of another’s awareness of who we are.  If this sounds confusing, it isn’t.  This process is central to all but the most perfunctory communication transactions.  As we address others we are usually “reading” their responses in light of what we believe they already have discerned about us.  We triangulate between our  perceptions of who we are, who they are, and what they are thinking about our behavior. This all happens in a flash, forming what is sometimes called “emotional intelligence.”  It’s an ongoing form of self-monitoring that functions to oil the complex relationships. Put this sequence together, and you get a transaction that is full of feedback loops that involve estimates if intention and interest, and—frequently—a general desire born in empathy to protect the feelings of the other.

It’s an understatement to say these transactions are not the stuff of machine-based intelligence, and probably never can be.  We are not computers.  As Walter Isaacson reminds us in his recent book, The Innovators, we are carbon based creatures with chemical and electrical impulses that mix to create unique and idiosyncratic individuals.  This is when the organ of the brain becomes so much more: the biographical homeland of an experience-saturated mind.  With us there is no central processor.  We are not silicon-based. There are the nearly infinite forms of consciousness in a brain with 100-billion neurons with 100-trillion connections.  And because we often “think” in ordinary language, we are so much more—and sometimes less—than an encyclopedia on two legs.