Artificial Intelligence And The Limits Of 'The Imitation Game'

Rest assured, computers aren't that smart. They lack common sense. Or so we assume: for if a computer could become conscious, how would we really know?

Sophia, a life-like humanoid robot.
Sophia, a life-like humanoid robot.
Rémy Demichelis

PARIS — No matter how sophisticated a computer may be, it still needs someone holding its hand. Or as Yann LeCun, head of AI research at Facebook, put it at a recent conference in Paris: "Even a rat has more consciousness than the best artificial intelligence systems we can build."

Sure, computers can beat the world champion of "Go," instantly detect a mistake in your Google search entry or drive cars. But no matter how much a machine learns on its own (that being one of the key definitions of AI), you still have to tell it — in the case of self-driving vehicles, for example — that it needs to go around, rather than through, a roadside tree.

One of the greatest challenges for AI today is to endow machines with common sense.

There are many types of learning, and human learning is still a difficult model to replicate. "A baby observes and understands the world through interaction. She discovers alone that there are animated objects and other inanimate ones," Yann LeCun explained during her conference appearance. "From the eighth month of life, the child understands that an object can't stay up in the air by itself. The principles of learning are in nature and our job as researchers is to explore that."

One of the greatest challenges for AI today is to endow machines with common sense — like not driving through trees. When we hear, "John came out of the apartment with Paul, he took his keys," we all understand that both "he" and "his keys' refer to John and not Paul. We can also guess that John went through the door and not the window, but an artificial intelligence system is still unable to make those assumptions.

Winning the Turin test

Still, researchers are making progress bridging the gap between AI and human beings. That is either exciting news if you're like the late Marvin Minsky, one of the founding fathers of computer science, or it's scary if you're like Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.

In 1950, the British mathematician Alan Turing, famous for deciphering Nazi Germany's Enigma code, imagined something called the "Imitation Game" — a test to determine whether or not a machine could think. The test consists of having a person interact with both a real human and what we would nowadays call a chatbot, namely a program that responds to Internet users in a dialog box. If, based on the responses he receives, the experimenter cannot tell the difference between the person and the machine, then the machine passes the test.

But does winning the Imitation Game really mean a machine thinks like us, or that it has consciousness?

In 2014, a team from the University of Reading announced that a software had done just that. The program simulated the responses of a fictional boy named Eugene Gootsman, a sarcastic 13-year-old who supposedly lived in Ukraine. When asked the number of legs of a millipede, the program replied: "Just two, but Chernobyl mutants may have them up to five. I know you are supposed to trick me." With a discussion time limited to five minutes, Eugene fooled 33% of experimenters.

Plenty of people, however, criticized the experiment by saying the conversation time was too short and the percentages too low. Jean-Paul Delahaye, a researcher at the Computer Science Laboratory of Lille, France, described it at the time of a "degraded" form of the Turing test.

But does winning the Imitation Game really mean a machine thinks like us, or that it has consciousness? For Turing, that wasn't the issue, and for a simple reason: Answering it is impossible, even between humans, the only way to know that another person thinks is to be that particular person. "It is usual therefore to have a polite convention that everyone thinks," he said. All we can do, therefore, is assume consciousness in the other, Turin reasoned. We can't really test it.

The Imitation Game is thus a second-person approach, one based on verbal or written exchanges. But it says nothing about the first person, that is to say about how a machine — or person — perceives the yellow color of a lemon, for example. It also doesn't say if the machine knows what it's talking about, or if it behaves, rather, like a good student who recites her lesson without actually understanding anything.

A statue of Alan Turing in Bletchley park Park — Photo: NUMRUSH

The consciousness conundrum

On the neuroscience side, the question of consciousness has long been dealt with by a so-called third-person approach, that is, by observing how the brain works. The trouble is that there are many things going on in the brain that the subject doesn't realize is happening. There is a tendency nowadays to combine the second- and third-person approaches — namely the interaction with the subject and the observation of the brain, for example, through an electroencephalogram.

The question of whether a machine can be conscious also nags neuroscientists. Stanislas Dehaene, a researcher who is a member of the French Academy of Sciences, wrote an article about it in the journal Science last fall. He suggests that one aspect of our consciousness is the ability to be attentive to one particular thing.

"When you look at these optical illusions where there are two drawings in one, like an old lady and a young woman, you only see one at a time," says Darinka Trübutschek, a doctoral student at the Paris School of Neuroscience, who worked in Dehaene's team.

Another aspect of consciousness is the ability to represent oneself, what is called "reflexivity." Dehaene concludes that — based on these two criteria — it is theoretically possible for an AI machine to be conscious.

"We know how to make machines that focus their attention or that have reflexivity, but is it the same as our consciousness?" asks Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, researcher at the Laboratory of Computer Sciences of Sorbonne University and author of a 2017 essay entitled "Le Mythe de la singularité" (the myth of singularity). "Turing says our consciousness is tied to our needs," he explains. "We love water because it is essential to our survival, but for an electronic machine, it would be poison."

It is theoretically possible for an AI machine to be conscious.

Regardless of their field, researchers agree on one point: It's not a matter of computing power. "A quantum computer wouldn't be any more conscious," says Pierre Uzan, professor of philosophy at Paris Diderot University and author of Conscience et physique quantique (consciousness and quantum physics).

Uzan agrees with Turin that the first-person approach to the consciousness question seems to be beyond the reach of science. The third approach, external observation, and the second, dialogue with machines, are therefore the only theoretical means at our disposal to answer the enigma. Nearly 70 years after Turing's seminal article, science is still being reminded of its limits.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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