Monday, October 10, 2016

Turing test is more than mere theatre: it shows us how we humans think.

© Huma Shah October 2016

Is the Turing test mere theatre?

You might question why anyone bothers to stage Turing test experiments when a computer programme achieved 50% deception rate in the first instantiation, the inaugural Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence in 1991. Back then judges were restricted to asking questions specific to each hidden entity, human or machine’s specialism. Whimsical conversation was the topic winner in 1991 from Joseph Weintraub’s PCTherapist III programme:

Since then machine simulation of natural language has moved on and we see chatbots with characters able to express opinions, share ‘personal information’ and tell it like it is! This from Elbot /Artificial Solutions  ( during a chat with this blogger on Oct 6, 2016: “You have quite an imagination. Next thing you know you'll say I needed batteries!

For me the interest comes from movie talking robots, recently sensationally experienced in Ex Machina where the female embodied robot Ava perpetrates the ultimate deception, or does she? Well it wasn’t quite what Ava’s programmer in the movie, Nathan had imagined. And of course HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey who talked and lip-read to a menacing end in Kubrick’s truly glorious cinematic production.

Experiencing the 13th Loebner Prize at University of Surrey in 2003 I felt tweaking that format could produce some interesting data. After all, Turing’s imitation game was as much concerned with finding out how we humans think as it is about exploring the intellectual capacity of a machine through its ability to answer any question in a satisfactory and sustained manner – Turing’s words (Computing Machinery and Intelligence, 1950).

Two decades from the 1st Turing test instantiation developer Rollo Carpenter claimed his programme Cleverbot was considered to be 59.3% human, following 1334 votes cast at a 2011 event in Guwahati, India.

Up to the year 2003 the method of practical Turing tests involved a human interrogator interviewing one hidden entity at a time. This is what I have named the viva voce Turing test in my PhD, ‘Deception-detection and Machine Intelligence in Practical Turing tests’.  In 2008 I designed a Turing test experiment in which, for the first time, control pairs of 2machines and 2humans were embedded among pairs of human-machine set-ups. In this layout each interrogator simultaneously questioned a hidden pair and had to decide which was human and which was machine. The 2008 Turing tests were also the first time in which school pupils were given the opportunity to participate as judges and hidden humans.

The new book, ‘Turing’s Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown’ details that experiment and two follow up Turing test events, in 2012 at Bletchley Park held on the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth, June 23rd as part of the worldwide centenary celebrations, and at The Royal Society London in 2014, on the 60th anniversary of Turing’s untimely and sad death.

Each experiment had an incremental purpose, including to scale machine performance in dialogue and whether they were getting better at answering questions in a satisfactory manner. As readers will learn from the book, we humans do not always answer a question appropriately, so should we be harsh when machines don’t, especially as they are learning programmes and a lot ‘younger’ than some of the youngest human judges?

Implementing Turing tests is actually quite hard work. Finding open-minded human interrogators and human foils for the machines as well as motivating developers of computer programmes to participate, takes time and persuasion. Not everyone is happy at the conclusions, as can be evidenced by the many negative and angry comments across tech magazines and newspaper articles, especially after the 2014 experiment. The Turing test does this, it is one of those controversial areas of science that brings out the proprietorial impressions; everyone feels their interpretation is the one Turing intended.

I am really grateful for all the participants, humans and machine who have participated in our experiments – more than 80 judges, 70 hidden humans, and for the ingenuity, patience and collaboration of the developers: Fred Roberts for Elbot; Robby Garner for JFred-TuringHub; Rollo Carpenter for Cleverbot; Robert Medeksza for Ultra Hal, and Vladimir Veselov and his team for Eugene Goostman. You will meet these conversationalists, or chatbots in the book. I hope it encourages more school pupils and the general public to take interest in the Turing test and get involved in the challenge. There’s still more to be done here :)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

What is the Turing test?

For the October 2016 launch of Turing's Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown, publisher Cambridge University Press asked the authors for answers to fundamental questions on the Turing test. Co-author, Huma Shah answers hers below:

Image: Harjit Mehroke

CUP: The Turing test was originally devised by Alan Turing in 1950. Why write a book about it now?

Huma: Turing actually devised his imitation game in his 1948 paper, ‘Intelligent Machinery’, considered the first manifesto of artificial intelligence. Turing’s test aims to investigate the intellectual capacity of machines, so it is as relevant today as when he was developing his ideas more than 60 years ago, especially because we are building more and more computer programmes and robots to conversationally interact and collaborate with humans.

CUP: What reactions have you seen in people who have taken the test?

Huma: Judges and hidden humans have mostly enjoyed their participation. However when some judges who got it wrong learn they did not accurately categorise humans as humans and machines as machines they ask all sorts of questions to mitigate their error, such as ‘Were the humans told to act like machines?’ – they were not, all humans in our experiments have always been asked to be themselves. However, what these judges probably have not realised is that error-making is part of intelligent thinking, it’s one way of how we learn and improve.

CUP: Why has the Turing test been controversial?
Huma: Because it questions the very nature of what it means to be human, and conversation-natural language is most human. Different interpretations of Turing’ ideas exist as to the purpose of the test with lots of disagreements, but this is healthy and democratises science and empirical work.

CUP: There is a popular misconception that the Turing test is a test for human-like intelligence in machines. But what is it really?

Huma: No, it is not a test for human-like intelligence but an exploration of whether a machine can ever answer any question put to it in a satisfactory and sustained manner. Of course the judgement of whether an answer to a particular judge’s question is relevant rests with the interrogator who might feel a machine’s response is more appropriate than a human’s answer to the same question.

CUP: Has a machine passed the Turing test? What is the significance of that event?

Huma: No, not in the sense that Turing would have envisaged. What has been achieved in the 2014 Royal Society London held experiment could be said to be the first challenge being overcome, that of wrong identification by 30% of a panel of judges. But this is open to interpretation of one statement of Turing’s in his 1950 paper ignoring what he said before and after. We do not yet have in existence the kinds of machines Turing envisaged that would play his imitation game satisfactorily.

CUP: Can machines think?

Huma: It depends on what you mean by thinking J  In place of circular definitions Turing posed his imitation game and felt that if a machine could answer any question in a satisfactory and sustained manner then that would not be an easy contrivance.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Turing's Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown

New book published by Cambridge University Press, September 2016:

Turing's Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown
co-authored by  Kevin Warwick and Huma Shah

Based on Shah's PhD thesis, Deception-detection and Machine Intelligence in Practical Turing tests, the book presents interviews with two contemporaries of Alan Turing, (the late) Professor John Westcott, and Sir Giles Brindley co-members of the Ratio Club. It tells the story of the origins of the ideas that gave rise to the Turing test and introduces you to Developers of computer programmes and the chatbots that attempt to answer any question in a satisfactory manner.

The book is appropriate for 'A' level and university students and teachers with interest beyond computer science: design, engineering natural language, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, robotics, ethics and cybercrime/deception-detection.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Review of Alan Turing biopic ‘The Imitation Game’

What if only a machine can defeat another machine?”

Last night, Wednesday 8th October 2014 I was one of the lucky ones, packed into a Cineworld (High Wycombe in my case), watching a simultaneous screening of the London premiere and gala opening of ‘The Imitation Game’ biopic of my hero Alan Turing (My PhD is based on the imitation game to explore machine thinking). Thank you to Show Films First, Amex and the BFI 2014 Film Festival for making this opportunity possible.

Drawing away from the film the mantra ‘Don’t be normal, be Turing’ reverberated in my thoughts all the way back to my home in a London suburb.

Watching the film compels you not to try to 'fit in', it will be seen as a pretence and you’ll be dismissed for it, better to be yourself, be as brilliant as it is possible for you to be, you may be disliked intensely, it may polarise people’s opinions about you, (in the cricket world currently one only has to look at how a batting "talent that comes along too rarely" Kevin Pietersen has been treated by some of his fellow team members and the English Cricket Board, ECB). But being despised is better than being ignored. Turing was not ignored, no one could ignore Turing.

Stepping back to yesterday morning, before I saw ‘The Imitation Game’ movie, I had really wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play Turing, as had been mooted in 2011 with Ron Howard to direct Graham Moore's script based on Oxford mathematician Andrew Hodges' biography. Leo has a similar square-ish face shape to Turing’s – handsome. 

Young Turing_Young Leo

Benedict Cumberbatch’s face is elongated and he doesn’t look anything like Turing, but then neither do Derek Jacobi (BBC Breaking the Code) and Ed Stoppard (Channel 4’s Codebreaker) who have also played Alan Turing

Adult Turing - Derek Jacobi - Ed Stoppard

Benedict is Sherlock Holmes, he seems to epitomise that kind of annoying logical smartass and mechanical sleuth. 

Yesterday Benedict was Turing. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game'

Let’s turn to what I felt after seeing ‘The Imitation Game’ film.

In 'The Imitation Game' film, the characters, and brilliant acting talent portraying the people around Turing at times in his life, included:

Mark Strong (Welcome to the Punch, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kick Ass) plays the mysterious but Turing-supportive MI6 head Stewart Menzies who passed Turing’s 1941 request for resources to Churchill. That Prime Minister responded and gave the resources in the plea, unlike David Cameron who had no money to support the Alan Turing centenary events in 2012, including the ‘London Inspire Mark’ award winning Turing100 series of practical Turing tests at the place where Turing broke the enigma code, well, not in Hut 8, but in Bletchley Park mansion’s Billiard and Ballroom on 23 June 2012. 

Turing’s 100th birthday. Mark Strong said, on the red carpet of the gala opening of the BFI London Film Festival: “I hope enough people in the UK know who Alan Turing is, because he is a hero”. Last night in Cineworld at least one of the staff members learnt who Alan Turing was, she asked me after the film what I thought and what certificate it should have, I feel it’s okay for children to watch with parents, in fact they should watch because it will inspire them. More than an Oscar or any ‘gong’, if this movie reaches more people beyond the world of us academics who work in his legacy, widens the circle of interest in Turing, then the film will be a major achievement of the entire production and cast.

Charles Dance said of his character in the film, Commander Denniston, that he was “a bit of a prat” . I’ll leave the reader to watch the film and find out why J

Keira Knightly. One can forget that her character, Joan Clarke, is not a made-up female drawing on cinematic licence ticking all the boxes to connect movies with movie-goers watching them, and who will want to watch them over and over again. Joan Clarke was very real, a first-class Cambridge-educated mathematician like Turing, who was, because she was female, designated a linguist rather than a code-breaker. We can easily forget that in the time Joan was part of Turing’s life it was less than two decades since women had been granted the vote on equal terms with men in the UK (in 1928), and how at Bletchley Park during WWII women assisted men as ‘secretaries’, but were capable of a lot more if given the opportunity, which Joan Clarke showed she so obviously was. 

Times are better for women, but still not great – in the second decade of of the 21st century the UK still has far fewer females populating the higher echelons of academia as University Vice Chancellors. Keira Knightly brings Joan Clarke out of the shadows into the light as a heroine herself and a role model for girls today. Thank you to Keira, for portraying Joan Clarke, not as a glamorous kitten in ‘The Imitation Game’ but with gracious simplicity masking an inner quality beyond beauty as Turing’s mind-for-mind friend.

Keira Knightley as codebreaker Joan Clarke

Benedict Cumberbatch. BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, Benedict was not that character as Alan Turing. Depicting the ‘confidant in his work’ mathematician, belief in ‘Turing as the codebreaker; and what the logician was doing, what was needed to be done at that crucial time and how to realise it in a not-normal way, pitting a machine against another machine by firstly focusing on getting a big machine built – was genius thinking. The film does not shirk from the fact that Turing was a homosexual, it’s ever present, but what the film does is not sensationalise that feature of Turing’s character. Alan Turing was much, much more than a homosexual man – he was a complex human being. This is what Benedict captures in his interpreting Turing, played brilliantly as a pioneer who challenged and risked to improve the world. Turing was not perfect, who is? Who wants to be? Turing was not normal; goodness the world needs more not-normals. The Imitation Game showed us that elegantly.

Finally about the film, there are scenes in the movie that I don’t recognise, or remember reading about in Andrew Hodges biographyAlan Turing: the enigma’, or his mother Sara Turing’s book, that the film presents as happening to Turing. It is unimportant as far as the concept of the movie goes – I recall a Greek colleague piqued that Brad Pitt’s Troy related Achilles killed inside the city, rather than what we’re  tuned to by the myth. Creativity in ‘The Imitation Game’ tells a great story of a dazzling intellectual, of the heroic Alan Turing who needs to be as well-known as Leonardo Da Vinci and Einstein. Thanks to Morten Tyldum's movie he will be.

YouTube 'Introduction to The Imitation Game BFI 2014 LFF gala screening':

YouTube 'The Imitation Game premiere, red carpet interviews at the 2014 London Film Festival':

Interviews of the cast of 'The Imitation Game', including Mark Stong here:


Readers might want to check the the 60th anniversary 'Turing on Emotions' 2014 special volume (5) with two issues of papers ranging from articles about Turing the man to Turing-related work in the international journal of synthetic emotions (IJSE), they include:

Film Theory and Chatbots. 5(1), pages 17-22

Feelings of a Cyborg. 5 (2), pages 1-6

See here for full contents list of IJSE Volume 5 issues 1-2:

 © Huma Shah 9 October 2014  - please note all images in this blog post have been taken from across the web

[NB: updated with YouTube clip and links]


Update 23 November 2014

I've now seen The Imitation Game film five times (8 October and 8 November pre-UK release, then 16, 18 and 22 November), once with my boss and his wife.  W/E 22-23 November, the Turing story on film is sitting at number two in the IMDB Box Office after Interstellar - Chris Nolan's 2001: Kubrick inspired space adventure.

The more I see the Imitation Game the more I admire Turing-type characters who have such self-belief and confidence in their talent that they challenge authority with the nature of a child. The scene in the film where Cumberbatch's Turing roars "You people will never understand the importance of what I am creating here" reminds of every time 'authority' continues with its old ways regardless of how unsuccessful they may be, too weak to take the risk, too self-important to envelope imagination.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Imitation Game film will open BFI London Film Festival 2014 tomorrow: 8 October

The Imitation GameAlan Turing biopic based on Andrew Hodges book 'Alan Turing: the Enigma' will open BFI's 2014 London Film Festival tomorrow, 8 October 2014. Simultaneous screenings of the premiere will be shown around the UK, here's my ticket :)

Alan Turing has been played previously by Derek Jacobi in 'Breaking the Code' (1996), and by Ed Stoppard in 'Codebreaker' (2011).  

This time around it is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays the tragic genius in the film that marks the 60th anniversary year of the untimely death of the tragic genius in 1954.

From my guest editorial, in a special 'Turing on Emotions' volume of major papers in The International Journal of Synthetic Emotions (IJSE):

"Alan Turing is one of those towering pioneers under whose striding shadow researchers in  many fields amble. He accomplished and  contributed more in his 41 years than many  of us could hope to in twice that lifetime." 

From here:

My paper in Volume 5, issue 1 of IJSE:

"This paper makes no apology for its reading like a collection of book reports. It draws mainly on the reminiscences of Sara and John Turing, Alan Turing's mother and elder brother respectively, as well as from Andrew Hodges' extensive research on the man, his work and his impact gathered for the definitive Alan Turing biography. Alan Turing was a complex, talented man bereft of one stable and loyal companion throughout his life. He was the boy who explained Einstein's Theory of Relativity aged 15½ for his mother and the tormented outcast who gave us the modern world (Sunday Times, 2011)."

Read more here :

Update 8 October:

Trailer for 'The Imitation Game' movie:

Coventry University continues Turing's pioneering work in machine intelligence, press notice here:

Deputy Vice Chancellor-Research, Professor Kevin Warwick said: "The Turing Test is one of the most important yet controversial milestones in the field of artificial intelligence, and Coventry University is critically involved with its practical assessment. This will have a dramatic impact on future communication not only where computers are involved but in all aspects of cyber-crime where identity and deception are key elements".

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why BBC 2's Newsnight dropped female Muslim for their 'who speaks for Muslims' studio discussion............

 ...................... so they wouldn't upset the Daily Mail!!!!!

A week ago two acknowledged space scientists, Dr Hiranya Peiris and Sky at Night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock appearing on Newsnight to discuss "detected gravitational waves, an echo of the Big Bang, the universe's cataclysmic birth almost 14 billion years agobrought forth this description by a Daily Mail columnist:
"....two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who've detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris"

Read a disgusted Professor David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London (UCL) feelings on the matter in the Guardian:
"I am writing to express my deep disappointment in the insinuation in your newspaper that Dr Hiranya Peiris was selected to discuss the Big Bang breakthrough on Newsnight for anything other than her expertise.
In Ephraim Hardcastle's column on 19 March, he asserts that Dr Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock were selected based on gender and birthplace because 'Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.'
The implication that anything outside of her academic record qualifies Dr Peiris to discuss the results of the BICEP2 study is profoundly insulting. She is a world-leading expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background, with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton, so is one of the best-placed people in the world to discuss the finding.
Dr Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way.
Full letter here. 

Perhaps fearing the wrath of the Daily Mail, and their contempt for contribution by intelligent females in highly technical matters, persuaded BBC 2's Newsnight team to host an-all male debate -  " last min editorial decision to replace me for 'wider views' (M. Francois-Cerrah/Twitter Feed) on who speaks for British Muslims?

Newsnight 24 March 2014: Who speaks for UK muslims?

On BBC2's Newsnight last night (Monday 24 March 2014),  Myriam Francois-Cerrah was dropped and replaced with  Mohammed Ansar resulting in umpteen minutes of squabbing among UK Huffington Post's political director Mehdi Hasan, Ansar both of whom clearly objected to former radical and 'counter-extremist think tank' Quilliam Foundation's Majid Nawaz, looked on by an unusually hapless Jeremy Paxman. Missing was a rational discussion about there not being a need for anyone to speak for the disparate coterie of Muslims anywhere.

Pity Newsnight backed down on Myriam's views though.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

'Alan Turing: His Life and Impact' book wins top prize in 2013 Prose Awards

2013 Winners

R.R. Hawkins Award
Elsevier Science
Alan Turing: His Work and Impact in the West, 350-550 AD

Edited by S. Barry Cooper and Jan van Leeuwen

From here:

Chapters detailed here:

Turing book