A Turing Test is a way for people to examine how intelligent a machine seems to be. It evaluates the question, “Can machines think?” by redefining thinking. Instead, Turing asked if a computer could converse so naturally that speaking with the machine would be indistinguishable from conversing with a human. The classic Turing Test has an evaluator holding a typewritten conversation with two unseen partners, one a person and the other a computer program. If the evaluator can’t distinguish between the two, the program is said to have “passed” the Turing Test.
Apart from evaluating whether chatbots can be effective in providing customer service for cable companies, the Turing Test is practical: it allows coders to evaluate whether their program can use natural language, can appear to reason through difficulties, and wither it can learn from past errors. It’s concerned strictly with how the program appears to outsiders, and whether it can “fool” someone into thinking it’s a person.
Illustration: Juan Alberto Sánchez Margallo. Source: Wikimedia
There are non-programming uses for the Turing Test, too. There’s an ideological Turing Test, where you try to argue the opposite of your political views so well that you’re indistinguishable from your opponent. There’s the business Turing Test, where you explain why your competitor’s products or services might be superior yours. The Catholic Church has a formal office that’s something like a Turing Test in the canonization process when they considered someone for sainthood. The office is called the “Devil’s Advocate,” and they try to dig up dirt on the candidate. According to the notable atheist Christopher Hitchens, the Vatican had him come in and argue against the canonization of Mother Theresa.
And there’s an investment Turing Test, where you try to make the case for doing the opposite of what you’re planning. If you want to buy a stock, argue for why you should sell it. If you think bonds are a safe investment, lay out a case why they’re risky right now.
By trying to argue convincingly for the opposite view, we expose weak points in our own thinking and try to avoid confirmation bias. We’re all subject to powerful psychological forces that make us want to go along with the crowd and not cause problems. Those who do are labeled gadflies and troublemakers. And once we take a position, it’s comforting to find evidence to support our views. Using a Turing Test is a formal process for taking the opposite view – for encouraging dissent. Because it’s hard to know what we don’t’ know.
We often hear about the “wisdom of crowds.” But a well-structured Turing Test can give us the “Wisdom of One.”
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”