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Man or Machine

Many people talk about becoming a different person in a foreign language—funnier or bolder or more suave. What they don’t mention is that, on the way, you become a computer.

That’s what struck me last month when reading about “Eugene Goostman,” the first machine to pass the Turing Test, by convincing 10 of 30 judges that it was a human based on a five-minute, instant-message conversation.

Eugene’s conversational style isn’t so different from that of other machines that have taken up the challenge over the years: He (or rather it) gets around gaps in knowledge or understanding by keeping answers vague, making jokes, or changing the subject. Here’s part of an interview Eugene did with Time following his win:

How are you adjusting to all your newfound fame?
I would rather not talk about it if you don’t mind. By the way, what’s your occupation? I mean—could you tell me about your work?

I’m a technology blogger.
It’s quite surprising that you are a technology blogger. Where do you came from, by the way? Could you tell me about the place where you live?

I live in Boston, but I grew up in Minnesota. I also lived in Seattle for a while.
Could you invite me to Seattle? I would be so grateful:-)

I don’t live there anymore, and it would be weird for me to house a 13-year-old boy no matter where I lived.
Possibly, it will be a big surprise for you, but “no” isn’t the only answer. The word “yes” also exists! :-) Wanna ask me something more?

That last answer of yours was a little shaky, Bro-Bro.
Damn! I’ve just recalled that I didn’t feed my guinea pig this morning. Poor animal!

For a period after the contest, you could get more of this by visiting Eugene’s web page and asking him your own questions. Today, you can simply seek out someone learning to speak your native tongue. Newcomers to a language need to bluff, parry, and evade if they don’t want to stop the flow every minute to ask, “what does X mean?” or “how do you say Y?”

On the one hand, this makes us better conversationalists: We ask lots of questions and listen more than we talk—all very gratifying for an interlocutor. On the other hand, we come across at times as real weirdos, asking questions that have already been answered or telling stories that sort of fall in line with the topic under discussion, but only because they share, say, a keyword. In other words, we sound like Eugene.

But we’ll quickly leave him in our dust. Gary Marcus, a professor of cognitive science at New York University, argues that Eugene never gets past pattern recognition to genuine understanding.  He also argues that a better test would work more like the reading-comprehension section of the exams I’m giving next week, and less like a teenager’s IM session—where non sequiturs, refusal to answer certain questions, and odd grammar and vocabulary are commonplace among humans, never mind machines.

I’m tempted to go the other way with my students: Forget the exams and instead fire questions at them over Gmail Chat.  If they can keep the conversation going with a little bluff and bluster, they pass. At the very least it would save a lot of grading. …

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