The Turing Test: Background information when reading Speak

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Speak

by Louisa Hall

Speak by Louisa Hall
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2016, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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Beyond the Book:
The Turing Test

Print Review

The Turing test judges a machine's ability to exhibit human-like intelligence, as envisioned by Alan Turing (1912–1954), one of the characters in Louisa Hall's novel Speak. The test is conducted as a written conversation between a human and a machine, externally monitored by a human observer. The conversational partners exchange text messages across a computer network, just like Gaby and MARY3 do in Speak. Since there is no oral component, the human competitor does not have the advantage of a more authentic voice. If the human mediator cannot tell the difference between the responses given by the two participants, the machine is said to pass the test. Turing believed that, within five minutes of conversation, a machine would eventually become convincing enough to pose as a human 30% of the time.

Alan Turing Essentially, what the Turing test is asking is whether machines can think and then turn those thoughts into natural, human speech patterns. Turing came up with the test while he was working at England's University of Manchester. His central question was "Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?" Many readers will recognize that italicized phrase as the title of the excellent 2014 film about Turing, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Graham Moore from the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

Two early programs that were designed to beat the Turing test seem to be similar to the MARY robot the Dettmans design in Speak: ELIZA, created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966; and PARRY, developed by Kenneth Colby in 1972. ELIZA was believed to be the first program that could pass the Turing test, but those results have been disputed over the years. Today's "chatterbots" are based on the same technology and are consistently mistaken for humans in web chats. In 2014, on the 60th anniversary of Turing's death, Eugene Goostman, a program simulating a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy, passed the Turing test during a display at the Royal Society of London by convincing 33% of judges that "he" was human.

The Turing test is commonly referenced in many science fiction movies, from the thinly veiled Voight–Kampff test used in Blade Runner (the 1982 film loosely based on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to Alex Garland's screenplay for Ex Machina, released in 2015. In the world of books, Paul Leonard's 2000 work of Doctor Who fan fiction and Chris Beckett's 2008 short story collection share the title, The Turing Test.

Picture of Alan Turing from Here and Now

Article by Rebecca Foster

This article was originally published in September 2015, and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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