Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Holy Shit, Turing!

Alan Turing
I briefly mentioned Alan Turing in his capacity as a code breaker during World War II, but I didn't really elaborate. How about I do that now?

Turing was a goddamn genius. He had a mind that handled intricate logic the way most of us handle tying our shoes. During World War II, he helped build the framework for what would eventually become computers, and he did so in an effort to decode the German Enigma Machine. When his efforts paid off, he moved on to a more difficult version used by the Nazi navy, and he did that part himself. Because he felt like it.
How hard could it be?

When the war ended, he decided to continue working on this newfangled "computer" idea, and it's largely because of that decision that you're reading this post today. At one point during his research, a strange question arose. He and his team were creating machines with stored memory. Machines that employed logic with relatively little input from users. The question was, "At what point can these machines be considered intelligent?"

And so the concept of realistic artificial intelligence was born. Turing even gave us a way to determine when we were approaching or crossing that threshold. He got the idea from a party game where two people would go out of sight and type answers to a series of questions, trying to imitate each other so that the rest of the group can't tell who's who.
The game was adapted into film in 1997

The Turing Test is like that, except one of the two players is not a human. The best way to go about it, Turing argued, would be to create a child-like computer then subject it to an education of sorts. And that's what people did. Chatter bots are all based on the principle of the Turing Test. They learn new tricks by talking to people. None of them have quite gotten the hang of it, though.

Well, until last week. At the University of Reading, a chatter bot named Eugene managed to convince a third of a panel of judges that it was a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. Granted, there are some concerns about the methods, the judges, and the parameters. But the test itself was never a dichotomy so much as a general idea of where the fine line is between a machine and a mind. What Eugene tells us is that, while we might not have created a mind yet, we're very close.
Eugene Goostman
And it doesn't at all resemble the terrifying love child of Macauley Culkin and Heinrich Himmler

As for Turing, he became the victim of archaic moral legislation. Alan Turing was a gay man, which was not something you wanted to be in the United Kingdom back in his day. It was illegal for him to be who he was. One day, his house was robbed, so he called the police. It came out while they were interviewing him that he was in a relationship with a man. He was promptly arrested and convicted of "indecency." His punishment was a combination of probation and chemical castration, as well as the revocation of his security clearance. This effectively ended his career.

Two years later, Alan Turing imitated his favorite fairy tale (Snow White) by lacing an apple with cyanide and eating it, killing himself. And that's how Britain showed its appreciation for one of the greatest minds their country had ever produced. A mind that not only laid the groundwork for modern computer science, but saved countless lives by taking the enigma out of the Enigma machine. It only took them 55 years to apologize for the way they treated him. Then 4 more for the Queen to give him a pardon.

Holy shit.

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