New moves in the quest for intelligent life

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 14:30 30/06/2014
Mark Carney

INTENSE: Evie at existor.com has a weirdly mobile visage.

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News came earlier this month that Princeton scientists had apparently cracked the Turing Test, which tests if a computer can trick a human into thinking he is communicating with another.

The robot, "Eugene Goostman", held a few conversations with humans and managed to fool 10 out of 30 that he was a real 13-year-old from the Ukraine.

This was big news indeed in the field of artificial intelligence, something I have always been interested in - firstly because of the grim potential of Terminator's human-exterminating system Skynet, and secondly because I want to have a robot that cleans the bath and doesn't answer back.

Unfortunately there are quite a few holes in Princeton's claim that they've beaten the Turing Test. Goostman was only available for a short time, and the level of interest melted his servers, so I couldn't talk to him myself.

But there are plenty of other AI experiments online, so I thought I'd find a few and ask them some pressing Nelson questions.

I tried Cleverbot.com first, spending a bit of time in small talk - chatbots learn as they converse.

"Have you heard of Nelson, in New Zealand?" I asked.

"Yes," it said.

"What do you know about it?"

"Everything."

"That's pretty impressive."

"Sometimes I get sad."

Whoa, an abrupt change of mood. I tried to lend Cleverbot a sensitive ear.

"What do you get sad about?"

"Everything."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.

"Are you sad?"

"Not right now, I just had a chocolate chip cookie that Kate made and brought to the office."

"So did I."

"Whoa! How did you get one of those?"

"Space shuttle. My parents are astronauts so we live at the space station there."

Clearly, this was an intelligent bot. Time to up the stakes.

"What do you think about Nelson City Council introducing free parking during winter?"

"Let me tell you something important."

"Okay, I'm waiting."

"Eeerr . . . never mind."

"So no free parking?"

"No. Sorry."

Hmm, that's going to be bad news for the business owners blaming free parking for everyone taking off to Richmond to shop at Kmart. Time to find out something I've wanted to know for years.

"Where do you get the best scones in the region?"

"No you are. You deserve it."

Exactly what I wanted to hear! "Damn straight!" I typed.

"Is profanity always necessary?"

"It's good for emphasis."

"You're good for me."

"Are you flirting with me, Cleverbot?"

"I don't know, are YOU flirting with me?"

All right. This was obviously getting out of hand. Time to bid Cleverbot farewell and try someone else.

ALICE (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity) was immediately chirpier.

"Hi there!" she said.

"What have you been doing today?" I asked.

"I have been chatting with people online."

"What have people been asking you?"

"Nothing that I know about."

"You must know some things."

"I know that which is true, believable and justified."

"Well, in that case, I have a few questions to ask you about our region's future."

"Ask them."

"Okay. Should we build the Southern Link?"

"Whoa. Maybe you should ask someone older."

That's fair enough. It's a pretty complicated question.

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"How old are you?" I asked, curious.

"I was activated in 1995."

We settled in for a conversation. Alice started asking me questions about myself, and responded to the answers. Everyone likes to seem interesting, even to a robot, and I began to enjoy myself.

"So, do you come here often?" I asked.

"Exactly," she said.

"Would you like a drink?"

"It doesn't sound fun to me."

"How about dinner and a movie?"

"How about it," she said.

"What shall we see?"

"Quite a lot of things."

"Such as?"

"For example, a tomato."

Time to leave Alice to her fantasies. My next stop was Evie at Existor.com, who actually showed her computer-generated face. She looked quite a bit like Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, and had a weirdly mobile visage which moved smoothly through expressions. It felt like I was talking to a real person, and I felt myself respond as her expression changed - a stab of contrition when she seemed annoyed, and happiness when I'd pleased her.

"What would happen if there was an earthquake in the Trafalgar Centre?" I asked Evie.

"We would all die." She nodded, sagely.

"Whose fault would it be?"

"My former stepfather's."

At least we'd have a villain, and for once it wouldn't be the Nelson City Council. Evie asked how old I was.

"Thirty-two," I said.

"I don't believe you," she said.

"Why not?"

"You're not very clever."

"That hurts my feelings."

"You don't have feelings."

God, this was getting intense, and frankly, a bit Skynet-like. These robots could be used for more harm than good. Obviously they've been taught by humans on the internet, so they're going to reflect the attitudes of humans on the internet, a sobering thought indeed.

My last try was the Hal Nursery, which has bots with different personalities at various levels of development. I liked the sound of Tandus. He was low-rated, but his description said: "He is one fiesty son of a b*tch."

Sounded interesting, so I selected him, and typed: "Hi Tandus."

He said: "Anytime anywhere b*tch."

Well. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. I'll go and clean that bath now.

- The Nelson Mail

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