Sexual harassment has been a feature of online and gaming communities from the earliest days of the internet. Until now, the abuse has been largely limited to verbal and visual messages, but as virtual reality technology becomes more immersive, the line between our real bodies and our digital bodies begins to blur.
More than 1 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the start of the conflict and as many as one-fifth of them may be suffering from mental health disorders, according to the World Health Organisation.But Lebanon’s mental health services are mostly private and the needs of refugees – who may have lost loved ones, their home, livelihood and community – are mostly going unmet.Hoping to support the efforts of overworked psychologists in the region, the Silicon Valley startup X2AI has created an artificially intelligent chatbot called Karim that can have personalised text message conversations in Arabic to help people with their emotional problems.
So, there I was shuffling along a rickety plank spanning two tower blocks when the well-meaning Stanford professor urged me to jump. Like a fool, I did so and felt myself plummeting to the ground. I braced for the impact, but there was none.Virtual reality may be great at tricking the senses but it cannot rewrite the laws of physics. I was still standing in the middle of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab with a VR headset strapped to my face.
At the Royal Society last week Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University, organised a version of what he called the Turing test – intended to decide if you’re talking to a human or a machine.
Warwick claimed that a program designed by the Amazon software developer Vladimir Veselov had passed the test by convincing 30% of the judges that it was a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy called Eugene Goostman.
This event has mightily stirred up the artificial intelligence research community, with a Guardian comment after Ian Sample’s article on 9 June capturing a typical view: “The problem is that this is a PR stunt for a mediocre university, not a useful measure.” Other comments recalled the history of Warwick’s eye-catching gestures – he once had a chip implanted in his arm so as to communicate directly with his partner.
So has some AI milestone been reached? Is Eugene Goostman the best conversation program ever created? Turing argued in 1950 that if a computer could be substituted into the old guessing game of “Am I getting notes from a man or a woman?” and no one noticed, then we should just admit computers could think and stop worrying. But Turing was not proposing a test of any sort, and in his setup, the question “Is this a machine or a person?” is never asked, because one thinks one is answering a question about sex. Once you pose the human-or-machine question directly, things start to get very odd.
The long-running Loebner competition has a similar format except that judges are not asked to say whether each candidate is human, but to rate them numerically. At the end, the scores are added and the performances are ranked. So far the “people” have always come out on top. The Loebner competition is not what Turing had in mind either, but it is at least systematic: it avoids the explicit question “Is this a machine?” with its ranking system, and publishes the transcripts of the best systems on its website, which Warwick declined to do.
All this makes it rather unlikely that Goostman was any better than the refined and experienced chatbots in the Loebner competitions; indeed, it seems Goostman competed there in 2012 and didn’t do well. A defect of the Loebner setup is that there is no methodology for comparing the winner one year with any other, so it’s not clear if the winners are getting better.
A team I led at the University of Sheffield won in 1997, and my hunch is that the winners now are much the same in terms of quality, but we cannot know for sure. What we can know is that there is no reason to believe Goostman is better than the Loebner winners.