Conversations with Computers

14 October 2001


Would you chat with your computer? Probably not. But this is exactly what a group of people will be doing at the Science Museum in London this weekend. And $100,00 is up for grabs for the best conversation. This may sound like a mad way to spend a weekend, but this event is not as trivial as it sounds. It is, in fact, the acid test for whether computers can be called "intelligent". If you couldn't tell if you were having a conversation with a computer, or with a person operating a computer, then you'd have to say that the computer could think. This competition has been going on for 10 years now, and no-one has come close to winning the prize. But "Alice", the computer that won the consolation prize last year, is raring to go again, with new, improved software. It is quite easy to fool even the most sophisticated computer. Ask it "How is the father of Andy's mother related to Andy" - and it can get fooled and reply "Fine thank you". This shows just how complicated it is to understand human speech. But the computer programmers have a few tricks up their sleeves to make their creations appear human. One is to rephrase a statement given to it into a question. So if you say to the computer: "I'm exhausted" it replies "So you're feeling tired are you?" Another trick is to appear quirky by going off in a random direction. The day when you can have a meaningful conversation with your laptop may be closer than you think.


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