Doing a Turing test

Turing-HarrisonFord

Recently I initiated an online chat with Apple support because I had a problem with my iPhone. The agent, Jayson, told me to turn the device off and on, but this didn’t fix the issue. Jayson then suggested I have the phone serviced by Apple, and arranged an appointment with the ‘technicians and geniuses’ in a local store. I thanked him and this exchange ensued:

Jayson
You’re most welcome! Thank you for your kindness, understanding & patience. Much appreciated John! Was I able to help you today?

Jayson
By the way ~ May you have a prosperous 2019!

John
Thanks for your help.  Bye now.

Jayson
I really appreciate you John, Don’t forget to eat your breakfast, lunch & dinner okay,? Its been my pleasure assisting you today, again my name is Jayson. Have a great day and take care always~

Jayson
All is well! You deserve the best in life and Cheers for a great 2019!

TuringTestRunning a very elementary Turing test on this dialogue reveals that Jayson is an artificial rather than human intelligence.  He (it) says things that no adult human agent would say in this situation. Yet Jayson’s mistakes are almost human, like those of a toddler learning to use language. He writes his own name phonically rather than conventionally. He can’t deal with my question – beyond the standard remedy of turning the device off and on – and so passes me on to the adult Apple technicians and geniuses. Unlike a traditional machine, he expresses affection and care: he wishes me a prosperous 2019 (in March) and reminds me to eat regularly, as his parents might have told him. No human programmer would make these mistakes; Jayson’s algorithm needs the capacity to adjust its warm, supportive language according to the season and the relationship.

Within a few years, it will become much more difficult to know whether one is ‘chatting’ to a human or machine agent (although we shall probably assume the latter). And this of course raises the question of the nature of knowledge: given appropriate technology, could a machine learn so adequately that the distinction between human learning – a activity of the embodied mind – and machine learning is elided? In Bladerunner 2049, there is no evident difference between the humans and the replicants. In Cultural Literacy (1988), E D Hirsch states that researchers in artificial intelligence have concluded that knowledge is the key component of all cognitive skills: ‘Once the relevant knowledge has been acquired, the skill follows’. Machine learning, according to this view, is not a mere simulacrum of human learning, but its paradigm.

This view clearly has very profound implications for educational policy, and aligns with current influential views on the teaching of language.

To be continued …

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Flares of memory

family1955-1.jpg

My grandmother to the left of me,  my brother and father, in 1955

I remember as a boy visiting my widowed grandmother, who lived nearby.  Sometimes she emerged from the smoke of a bonfire at the end of the garden. As a young woman, around 1905, she worked in a photographer’s shop in Ealing.

The bonfire this afternoon was higher than my waist.  I needed my raincoat, hat and boots in this chilly autumn weather.   I dropped the matches as I tried to bend into the centre of the laid branches.  I thought I might fall as I held onto the upper branches of the bonfire, scrabbling in the darkness.  Should I be doing this kind of thing at my age?

I follow Fred into the dark room, as he calls it.  I haven’t told my mother about my new work in the photographer’s shop.  Fred is only a few years older than me.  My father certainly wouldn’t approve of his daughter working alone with a man in the darkness.  My eyes slowly grow accustomed to the red glow of the safety light. I can see the outline of Fred on the other side of the table, pouring chemicals into a metal developing tray. I’m scared, but excited.  Should I be here?

Having located the matches, I reached down and struck the sandpaper edge of the box. Sodden with paraffin, the rolled pieces of newspaper soared orange, leaping into the dry stacked wood and beyond the green branches.  It reminded me of the magnesium flares we used in night photography – fifty years ago now, before my marriage, India, George’s death and the return to England.

Fred lays the photographic paper in the dark developing tray. In the dim red light, milky white patches appear.

I stood back. Already the fire was crackling and thick grey smoke was streaming upwards from the leaves and branches.  The heart of the fire was ravenous, all consuming, transforming green shoots to black char. Small pieces of burning paper arose and descended.

Fred picks up the paper and moves it into the fixing solution in the adjacent tray. I can see figures, on a beach perhaps, the sky in the negative image darker than the sea.  Will I be able to do this work, produce pictures out of pungent chemicals in a blackened room lit only by a safety light?

The fire was dying along with the sun as I gathered my tools and walked through the garden towards the glow of the living room.  Another day of my later life.