The Turing Test

(I’ve been reading seminal papers on artificial intelligence, some of them surprisingly old, by several geniuses in the field, none of whom I’d heard of.  However old you get, there’s always a world of things out there that you don’t know.  They got me thinking and resulted in the following post.  There are now programmes that can generate stories, and they’re probably a lot better than this one.)


The Turing Test

The boy was visiting his grandad, for a whole weekend. There they sat by the fireside, one winter’s night, the grandad reclining in a once blue, floral patterned wing chair; now very dirty indeed from years of accumulated dust, grease marks and coffee stains.  The fabric was torn in many places.  The boy sat cross legged on a thick sheepskin rug, as near to the fire as he could stand.   It was a real fire, sending out the kind of real warmth that no electrical appliance could ever replicate.

The grandad lived in an old cottage in Cornwall, perched precariously on the side of a cliff.  That night the wind was whistling over the roof and down the chimney. It collided with the single paned, wooden windows, threatening to break every single one.  The boy’s grandad had ‘let the house go,’ in his mother’s words.  His grandad had also once worked with computers his mother said, but that had been years and years ago.  The boy didn’t mind about the house.  Why would a 10 year old boy notice mismatching furniture.  Or stone tiled floors and their discoloured rugs.  Or the rickety staircase with the threadbare carpet.  Or the patches of damp on the walls.  Or that peeling bit of wallpaper in the hall.  The boy loved the house and he loved his grandad. His grandad was a storyteller, spinning his tales like a woman spinning yarn from a wheel, a long, long time ago.

It was eight o’clock and the boy watched in fascination as his grandad reached for a pipe in a rack on the wooden mantelpiece.  His grandad took a pouch from the inside pocket of his baggy, green corduroy jacket and extracted an orangey brown tobacco.  The boy was spellbound, as his grandad neatly packed the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe and then struck a match, from a box lying on a small, scratched table beside him.  The boy moved closer to his grandad, watching the tobacco catch light, glowing like an ember in the fire.  Hypnotised, his eyes never left the pipe as it travelled up to his grandad’s lips, and those lips pursed to draw on the pipe, like a giant baby sucking on a giant dummy.  The boy almost laughed.  ‘Never smoke boy,’ his grandad intoned, ‘however, smoking a pipe is nowhere near as bad for you as smoking a cigarette is (this was a lie) and I am now of such a great, great age that smoking the occasional pipe isn’t likely to do any real harm.’  The grandad gave the boy a slow smile and winked, ‘In fact it may do some good… it time for a story?’   ‘Oh, yes,’ the boy replied.  ‘Yes please.’  ‘Fetch the whisky and a glass from the cabinet, I might give you a thimbleful if you’re good,’ again the slow smile and the wink.  ‘A true story or make-believe?’  ‘Both,’ the boy said.  ‘Alright.  Most of the story will be true, and that will be the really interesting part,’ the grandad said softly, ‘but some of it will not be very true at all.’


There was once a young boy called Alan Turing and he was a genius. He was born in 1912 .  ‘Over a hundred years ago!’  the boy exclaimed.  The grandad paused a while, considering the point that, to his grandson, a century would indeed seem like aeons ago.  At eighty years old, the grandad was apt to think of it as a mere flash in the pan.  ‘Yes, simply ages and ages ago,’ he murmured, ‘practically back in the Middle Ages, but let’s continue,’ and he took a rather morose sip from his glass.

Alan went to public school, where he was usually bottom of his class, in subjects like English.  Several teachers despaired of his awful handwriting and his slipshod work. Alan did well in exams though, without paying any attention at all in class.  This annoyed the teachers very much. ‘I annoy my teachers,’ the boy said. ‘Then you must be a genius,’ the grandad replied, with a smile and a wink, and he blew a bluish smoke ring into the air.  The boy watched it glide in a wobbly fashion over his own head.  ‘That’s a nearly impossible trick to pull off you know, but Mr Turing would probably have explained to you and I, how I can blow smoke rings and why they wobble,’ the grandad said.  ‘But would we have believed him, considering he was regularly bottom of his class?

The years flew by to find Alan at Cambridge University.  This might seem an astonishing fact, considering his teachers’ harsh opinions, but Alan had been studying hard, at home, devouring scientific ideas.  At 15 he wrote his own book on the theory of relativity, showing a complete understanding and gave it to his mother – imagine that?  I wonder if she appreciated it’.  ‘What’s the theory of relativity?’ the boy asked.  ‘Ah, that’s a story for another time,’ his grandad replied, and took a very large slurp from his whiskey glass.

‘During Alan’s university career, he invented the Turing machine, a theoretical machine operating along the lines of the now digital computer.  ‘What’s a theoretical machine?’ the boy asked.  ‘Well, it means that Alan imagined his machine, that it didn’t actually exist, and couldn’t exist at the time since it would take 9 years for electronic technology to come close to being able to make it.  What’s even more fascinating, however, is that the word computer used to refer to people. In Alan’s time there were people called human computers. They were employed in research projects to plot data and do a lot of maths, and they were usually women.  Mr Turing’s idea was that these duties would one day be carried out by machines, by giving them instructions, written in a series of 0s and 1s on machine tape, and that’s why you’ve now got an iPad and a mobile phone.  What he might be most famous for though, is The Turing Test.  Oh, and he also saved Western civilisation along the way, by helping to crack enemy codes during the war.’  ‘Which war?’ the boy asked.  ‘World War II.’  ‘We’re doing World War II at school!’ the boy exclaimed.   ‘Nasty business,’ the grandad replied and drained his whiskey glass. ‘Just let me get a refill,’ he said.  Back in his chair the grandad continued: ‘Alan’s, and his team’s code breaking skills probably shortened the war by two years, saving umpteen lives, and this country’s bigwigs returned the favour by killing one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.  ‘Why would they kill a genius and a hero?’  the boy cried.  ‘That’s also a story for another time,’ the grandad said, tapping his pipe against the stone fireplace.  ‘When you’re much, much older.’

The boy felt pleasantly drowsy and began watching the flames in the fire. ‘What’s the Turing test?’ he asked.  ‘Otherwise known as the Imitation Game,’ the grandad replied.  ‘Turing proposed a sort of Victorian parlour game to illustrate the idea that one day machines might be able to mimic human intelligence so closely that they could pass as human.  In the game three people would be hidden from each other. One would be an interrogator, the other two a man and a woman.  The interrogator’s job was to guess which was the man and which the woman, by asking a series of written questions and receiving written answers.  One respondent would tell the truth, the other could choose to lie.  But what would happen if one respondent was replaced by a hypothetical, future machine?  If the interrogator couldn’t tell which was the human and which the machine, by the answers they gave, then the machine had passed the Turing Test and could be thought of as intelligent; a thinking machine.  It was the beginnings of AI.’  ‘We’ve done AI a bit at school!’ the boy gasped.  ‘Yes, Artificial Intelligence,’ the grandad said, ‘whereby computers are increasingly doing the routine jobs that people used to do.  There’s a fourth industrial revolution taking place you know and it might be just as scary as the previous ones.’  The boy looked confused.   The grandad looked at him, ‘don’t worry about it, here have a biscuit,’ and he picked up a tin from the floor at the side of his chair. It had a tartan pattern and a cute black dog on the lid.  ‘It’ll be a long time before a computer can enjoy a biscuit,’ he said. ‘So far, no computer has passed the Turing Test, now carried out in the form of the annual, but controversial, Loebner Prize competition.  You see, many folks in the world of computers don’t like the Turing Test at all.   But this competition is where the make-believe bit of the story begins.


‘The annual Loebner Prize was entering its one hundredth year and still no computer had passed the test.  That year the competition was being held at Cambridge, both in honour of Alan Turing and the competition’s centenary.  We’re now in the year 2091 (cool! the boy breathed) and robots are everywhere, strolling about with their onboard computers.  They are built to be humanoid, but it’s very easy to tell the difference, with all the metal and the hydraulics and lord knows what else used to build them. But this is why some future computer boffins still like to take part in the Turing Test, because their robots can’t be seen.

In an isolated robotics facility in Scotland a team of computer scientists had built a robot that was as lifelike as possible.  With the help of many other research scientists, their robot looked just like us, if you didn’t pay very close attention that is, but then how many of us really pay close attention?  The skin looked like skin, the eyes like eyes and the hair like hair.  Its deep learning neural network was spectacularly close to the human brain, they just couldn’t work out how to programme it with that indefinable something that makes us human.

One day one of these computer scientists was checking out the Loebner Prize. I can’t believe that old dinosaur is still going, he thought.  Might be interesting to check it out though, after all these years; probably good for a laugh.  I don’t have time to go, but I could send Tom over there to play the game.  I’ll ask him if he wouldn’t mind applying for the role of judge (‘this is now the new name for the interrogator in Turing’s old game’, the grandad added.’)  Tom’s just getting going with his routine programming skills, they’d think of him as an ‘average’ candidate – not like us scientists, in our coding ivory towers, hell bent on taking over the world.   The scientist gave an ironic smile.  ‘Hey Tom,’ he called over to the young man sitting a couple of desks away, ‘fancy a change in your routine?’  ‘And my subroutines?’ Tom replied and laughed.  ‘Would you like to take part in the Loebner Prize?’ the scientist went on.  ‘More specifically as a judge.’  Tom paused for a moment to think,  ‘The Loebner Prize?  Oh, the competition based on the Turing Test,’ he said.’  ‘Can I take a moment to look it up?’  ‘Of course, we’ll go through the rules together.‘

They found that during the competition there would be text conversations between Tom and various human ‘confederates’ and robots.  Tom would be placed in one room and the human and robot in another room. Their conversations would be in the form of two chat windows appearing simultaneously on Tom’s screen, one window for the human and one for the robot.  The conversations would last 25 minutes. In honour of the prize, this was the same format that had been used in the test for nearly a century.  Tom’s task was to identify which was the human and which the robot.  ‘What do you think, Tom?’  the scientist asked.  ‘I’ve never paid much attention to it,’ the scientist continued, ‘I think of the test as more of a philosophical or behavioural exercise, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go.’  ‘Yes ok, put my name forward,’ Tom said.  The scientist added Tom’s name to the Loebner Prize rosta and received a message a few weeks later stating that Tom could take part as a judge.

Tom and the computer scientist spent a few enjoyable weeks, in a local pub after work, having experimental chats with each other on their laptops and looking up previous competition chat scripts.  ‘They still use laptops in 2091?’  the boy asked.  ‘Well, I’m not a futurist am I?’ the grandad replied.  The boy was perplexed, ‘what’s a futu…?’   ‘I’ll tell you when the story’s finished,’ the grandad said.  These conversations were to help the two recognise what makes a human human and a robot robotic.  You’d think the difference would be obvious wouldn’t you?  But some humans can sound like robots, believe me, and probably vice versa.

The day of the competition arrived and we find Tom at Cambridge University entering one of its ancient buildings.  He was greeted by a competition host, who introduced herself as Verity.  ‘Mr Tom Smith, you’re one of our judges,’ she said, looking at his profile photo.  ‘I’ll be your guide,’ and she walked him to the judge’s room.  ‘Nice day for it, isn’t it?’  she asked.  ‘For the contest?  Yes,’ Tom replied, ‘it’s a nice day for a lot of other things too, like a walk or a picnic.  How long have you been involved with the competition?’   ‘About 10 years now,’ Verity replied, ‘I’m a software engineer.  My hobby is trying to create a programme which can successfully pass the Turing Test; one of my robots is taking part today.’  ‘I might be judging him against his human counterpart,’ Tom said.  ‘Her,’ Verity replied, ‘she’s called Doris, after my mum.’  ‘Strange that you attribute gender to a machine.  Doris is a very old name, circa 1924, why did you use your mother’s name?’  ‘She died a few years ago,’ Verity said, ‘I’m keeping her memory alive, although I admit in quite a creepy way.’  ‘Not creepy,’ Tom replied, ‘sentimental; creepy is Norman Bates keeping his dead mother in the cellar.’  Verity laughed. (‘Who’s Norman Bates?’ the boy asked.  ‘Now that’s a story you don’t need to know,’ the grandad replied; ‘to continue……….’)

‘Verity said, ‘The Psycho thought had occurred to me actually, naming a computer after my mother, do you think I’m a bit mad?’  ‘No, just human,’ Tom replied.  Verity smiled; ‘where do you work?’   ‘At a robotics facility in Scotland.’   ‘Do you want a coffee before the competition starts?’ she asked.  ‘No thanks.’  ‘Probably for the best,’ said Verity, ‘the caffeine might make you jumpy for the test.’  ‘Yes, caffeine is a stimulant,’ said Tom, ‘however, if I did have a single cup of coffee, it would more probably make me more alert and focused, decreasing your robot’s chances of convincing me that she’s human,’ and Tom smiled.  ‘Are you from Scotland? Verity asked, ‘you don’t have an accent, I can’t place it.’   ‘Accents can be endearing,’ Tom said, ‘they are an interesting area of linguistic study.  You’re from the South coast, I can hear it in your vowel sounds.’  ‘Oh, here we are at the judges’ room,’ Verity remarked and guided Tom to a desk equipped with a laptop.  ‘I like the coastline,’ Tom said, ‘makes me feel like I’m standing at the edge of the world.’  ‘Shall we meet up after the competition is over?’ Verity asked, ‘we could go for a walk in the grounds.’  ‘Certainly,’ Tom replied, ‘a walk is always a good thing to do on a nice day, as I mentioned earlier.’  Verity laughed.

Tom chatted with a few people that day and went on to correctly judge which was the human and which the computer.  ‘Do you think you could tell?’  the grandad asked the boy.  The boy replied that it would be a piece of cake.  ‘In 2091 it might not be such a piece of cake,’ the grandad replied.

Tom went back to Scotland and was back at work a couple of days later doing his routine programming job, one that any robot could do.  Five o’clock came around and the staff began leaving the robotics facility.  A colleague came over to the computer scientist.  ‘Can you shut The Optimal Machine down for a couple of days please, needs a few tweaks’ he said.  ‘Will do,’ the scientist replied and walked over to Tom.  ‘‘Hi Tom, time for a rest, you’ve been very busy.’  Tom held out his arm and the scientist pulled up a section of skin on Tom’s arm, to reveal a small switch and flicked it to ‘off.’   The scientist turned to his colleague, ‘did you hear our optimal machine made quite a few friends in Cambridge and got a private message from one of the Loebner Prize hosts?  She asked TOM to dinner.  I’d say we just passed the Turing Test wouldn’t you?’  The scientist and his colleague did a very old fashioned high five.

‘Tom was a robot,’ the boy gasped.  ‘Yes,’ said the grandad. ‘The story was rather full of plot holes,’ the grandad murmured to himself, ‘but I blame it on the whiskey,’ and he drained his second glass.  ‘I thought you said the robots would be in a separate room to the judges, and the judge would ask them questions,’ the boy continued. ‘Correct, but nobody said anything about the judges having to be human did they? Why do you think Tom passed as human?’  ‘Cos they didn’t expect one of the judges to be a robot?’  ‘Correct, and Verity could see Tom, and humans have a capacity to not see what’s right in front of their eyes.  Had Tom been hidden, and Verity had to rely on their conversation in written form alone, then she would have guessed he was a robot.’   ‘Did anyone else guess he was a robot,’ the boy asked.  ‘No, I don’t think so; maybe they spent too little time with him to notice his more robotic features, or maybe they were just too self-absorbed, like most humans.  No, those scientists passed the Turing Test 100%.  Give it a century or two and there won’t be a need for the Turing Test anymore; those computers will be thinking better than we do – what do you think of that?’

COOL! the boy cried, and the grandad smiled and winked.




One thought on “The Turing Test

  1. Very impressive, you MUST write a novel, something like ‘84 Charing across Road,’ but with your humour, pathos, and emotional talent, I could go on, there is no limit.


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