News that a supercomputer has successfully tricked interrogators into thinking it is a 13-year-old boy has been branded a "wake-up call to cybercrime".
The iconic Turing test was passed for the very first time in London on Saturday by a supercomputer called Eugene Goostman.
Dreamt up in 1950 by the father of modern computer science, Alan Turing, the Turing test investigates whether people can detect whether they are talking to a human or a machine.
Eugene Goostman passed the test by duping more than a third of the judges – which included the actor Robert Llewellyn who plays Kryten in Red Dwarf (pictured below, on the left) – into thinking it was human during a series of five-minute keyboard conversations.
A computer program developed in Russia that simulates a 13-year-old boy, it was one of five entries battling it out for the Turing Test 2014 Prize. The contest took place at the Royal Society in London and was organised by the University of Reading.
University of Reading visiting professor Kevin Warwick acknowledged that the test's name has been applied to similar competitions around the world. Crucially, however, conversations in this event were unrestricted, he said.
"A true Turing test does not set the questions or topics prior to the conversations," he added.
"We are therefore proud to declare that Alan Turing's test was passed for the first time on Saturday."
Although visions of the world being taken over by an evil Hal-like machine may still be a little far-fetched, Warwick warned that the outcome of the contest over the weekend has implications for society.
"Having a computer that can trick a human into thinking that someone, or even something, is a person we trust is a wake-up call to cybercrime," he said.
"The Turing test is a vital tool for combatting that threat. It is important to understand more fully how online, real-time communication of this type can influence an individual human in such a way that they are fooled into believing something is true...when in fact it is not."
Vladimir Veselov, who led the team that created Eugene Goostman, said he hoped the achievement would boost interest in artificial intelligence and chatbots.
"Eugene was 'born' in 2001," he said. "Our main idea was that he can claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn't know everything. We spent a lot of time developing a character with a believable personality. This year we improved the 'dialogue controller' which makes the conversation far more human-like when compared with programs that just answer questions.
"Going forward we plan to make Eugene smarter and continue working on improving what we refer to as 'conversation logic'."
The event took place on the 60th anniversary of Turing's apparent suicide after he was persecuted for his homosexuality. Turing's work breaking codes at Bletchley Park has been acknowledged as crucial to Britain's efforts in the Second World War.
As well as Llewellyn, among the judges was Lord Sharkey, who spearheaded the campaign for Turing's posthumous pardon last year.
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