Wednesday, October 3, 2012

People and their machines

In a little less than 2 months, I am scheduled to give a presentation on Brian Christian's "The Most Human Human".  It is his story and thoughts related to participating in a contest to see how computers compare to people.  The British logician and computer theorist, Alan Turing, proposed in 1950 to use a comparative test to evaluate the effectiveness of computers.  Let a computer and a person be hidden behind screens and let people send questions to each in written form.  Let a panel of judges sort through the answers, correctly sorting those from the computer and those from the person.  Turing proposed the idea that if the sorting could not be done, then computers were successful at thinking (and answering questions) as people.

From time to time, the question arises: what difference is there between a computer and a human being?  The related question comes up: Are people a special type of machine?  In a long, careful and technical work on that question, one would want a definition of "person" and of "machine".  As more complex machines are built and as research and understanding of the mind, body, development and history of people improves, we can start to wonder if someday humans will build a machine that can reproduce itself and even threaten or enslave humans.  I know this is the stuff of much science fiction but the idea does come to mind.  

I haven't read much science fiction but I have been told that Isaac Asimov's stories feature quite a bit about robots, including the laws of robotic behavior and the law that machines may not hurt a human being.  However, in other stories of course, they may be trying to hurt us.

Brian Christian's book is about his entering the contest for the Loebner Prize.  He is not a computer scientist or information technologist and wanted to be awarded a prize they give for the "most human human".  It is awarded to a human contestant who is indeed human and does a good job sending messages that make that status clear to the judges.  The judges change from year to year but they have made errors, including deciding that a woman Shakespeare expert was a computer.  They thought it would be impossible for a human to have so much detailed knowledge.

We all probably know that technology is changing rapidly these days as new ideas are thought of and tried.  Not long ago, I saw that some pizza parlor was delivering pizzas right to homes by means of model helicopters.  Maybe you have heard of or actually use Siri, the Apple software that is a "personal assistant" and can interact (a modern word) with humans.  I guess the iPhone user speaks to Siri and asks a question or gives a command.  However, not all the kinks are out of the system yet.  I see that one man complained that he directed his Siri to send a message to his wife that he loved her.  The wife got the message "He loves her."

This post on O'Reilly Radar by Nat Torkington caught my eye, especially the first item.  It means that someone is trying to allow humans to compete in finding the best route and deal and they may indeed be able to surpass a computer and math.

Nat Torkington on O'Reilly Radar

FlightfoxReal people compete to find you the best flights. Crowdsourcing beating algorithms …. (via NY Times)

Code Monster (Crunchzilla) — a fun site for parents to learn to program with their kids. Loving seeing so much activity around teaching kids to program. (via Greg Linden)

Telling People to Leave Finance (Cathy O'Neil) — There's an army of engineers in finance that could be putting their skills to use with actual innovation rather than so-called financial innovation.

Kittydar (GitHub) — cat face recognition in Javascript.

O'Reilly Radar (

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