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Friday, March 7, 2014

Turing Tests and the Opus Factor

A recent news report makes me think we should start giving Turing Tests to government workers. 

(If you don’t know what a Turing Test is, please see the bottom of this post for a very brief introduction.)

A fire alarm sounded at a high school and, as seems reasonable, faculty rounded up all the students, got them outside and, presumably, mustered them in predetermined locations and took a head-count to ensure everyone got out of the building.  Procedurally it would be sensible the teachers thereafter keep their assigned students together for safety and accountability, and to ensure some of the more energetic and less scholastically dedicated  students don’t use the excitement as an opportunity to sneak off.  So far, so good.  In this case a fourteen year old student was swimming in the school’s indoor pool when the alarm went off.  Apparently she was not given time to go to her locker for her clothes before being hustled outside to the muster point, nor was she allowed – once she had reported to her assigned muster point - to get into a car, or to go stand inside the elementary school located across the street.  This is remarkable because the incident occurred on February 26.  In St. Paul, Minnesota.  The temperature was -5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind chill factor took it to 25 below.  Reportedly the girl had frost bite in ten minutes.

I know what you’re thinking: This has nothing to do with Turing Tests and it quite clearly didn’t have much to do with intelligence, artificial or otherwise.  Quite the opposite, one might say.  This was simply some teachers and/or administrators in one of America’s public school systems doing what they do – displaying that special kind of stupid that only a union-protected government employee is ever allowed to get away with.  I take the point.  But still…

Are we really to believe the teachers involved in this shocking incident are simply droolingly stupid?  And such imbecility was never noticed during their own school years?  Or during the interview process they went through to get hired as teachers?  Do we really think bureaucracies can sap every last shred of basic morality and common sense from otherwise reasonable Americans so that they would stand next to a dripping wet, almost naked girl in a parking lot in Minnesota in the Winter, and refuse to let her seek the shelter that even a retarded child could see she needs to survive?  Can even abject depravity or sociopathy explain this incident?  Even assuming someone is so depraved or sociopathic as to not to give a damn whether this girl lives, dies, or loses her feet to amputation, wouldn’t simple fear of consequences cause the teachers not to want to be responsible for being the cause of an obvious, foreseeable, and preventable harm?  Something in this story just doesn’t compute.  

And that, I think, is the clue.

As far as the teachers were concerned, the situation didn’t compute.  It’s not as if any human living in Minnesota doesn’t understand – intellectually - the danger of being outside in the winter, wet and wearing nothing but a bathing suit.  The news in Minnesota every winter includes reports of people freezing to death.  The problem here was in the ‘programming’ of the teachers involved.  Or rather, the problem was that they followed their ‘programming’ –their training and protocols  -  and were unable to break out of the loop, even though it was screamingly obvious to any human the protocol they were following  did not cover the situation they were dealing with.  Their algorithms were inadequate and it overloaded their systems.  The hourglasses on their screens just kept spinning.  Humans would have noticed this immediately.  Despite any training, however strict, most humans would have - to borrow from Berke Breathed, - “departed the text” during that situation in St. Paul in February.  Most humans would have called an audible, improvised, shot from the hip.  American English is chock full of ways to refer to the critical human ability to make a new plan on the spot.  On the fly.  There is a good reason we have so many ways of referring to the ability to use our discretion.  That ability is exactly what separates human intelligence from that of other animals and, so far, from machine intelligence.

That ability – let’s call it the Opus Factor – is a key way one knows one is dealing with a human.  These teachers didn’t display that ability.  Even though one of their charges was standing outside in Minnesota in February, barefoot, wearing a bathing suit, dripping wet, and with car interiors and building lobbies within easy reach, they simply continued to follow a protocol they surely knew was gravely endangering a child.

Humans don’t act that way.  Inadequately coded AI programs act that way, and sometimes government workers act that way.  Ergo, some government workers are missing some aspect of humanness the rest of us possess.  QED.  We assumed everybody else possesses such humanness (hence the term)  but we were obviously wrong.  Some people don’t, and some of those people work for the government.  And since government workers sometimes are responsible for critical decisions concerning (other people’s) life and death, it seems clear we must give Turing Tests to government workers.  The tests must be given before we consider letting someone have a government job and my hunch is these tests need to be given periodically, just in case there is in fact something about government jobs that sucks the humanity out of people.

It’s the only way to keep the humans in charge.  Don’t let Skynet win.  Especially if it turns out Skynet is just a bunch of government workers who are that special kind of stupid.

The Turing Test:

According to Wikipedia a Turing Test is a test of the ability of a machine to exhibit behavior “indistinguishable” from that of a human.  Basically, you ask the machine questions and see if it answers the way a human would.  It used to be considered a fairly geeky, sci-fi concept.  The movie ‘Bladerunner’ used the test as a major plot driver and in the movie the test itself gets a fairly spectacular introduction.  I haven’t seen the more recent movie ‘Her’ but understand it is about a man who falls in love with the AI voice of his phone company or some such thing.  The AI machine in ‘Her’ must have passed the test as far as the main character was concerned.  (Maybe the voice of Scarlett Johansson can smooth over some of the flaws a lonely fellow might otherwise notice in his relationship with a computer program.  Probably depends on the fellow.  And what we mean by ‘lonely’.)

I wrote the Turing Test “used to be” considered sci-fi.  Anyone who has recently dealt with the helpdesk chat capability of, say, his credit card company can sometimes see that  the ‘person’ he is ‘chatting’ with seems to be kind of off.  He doesn’t seem to get any humor.  He sometimes ignores information unless it’s presented a certain way.  The slightest irregularity in your problem seems to cause your supposed customer service rep to bounce you to his supervisor.  Welcome to the real Turing Test.  You may have been chatting with a machine.  Maybe it didn’t know what to do with your comments about the traffic; it didn’t understand your use of slang; perhaps the innocuous reference you made about the weather in your city just overloaded its ability to respond to you.  Following whatever algorithm it’s programmed to follow, it then passed you on to a real human.





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