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‘Minimal Turing Test’ asks humans to prove they’re human with only one word

A test that is designed to highlight the difference between human and machine — or prove that a human really is a human — is nothing new. In fact, it’s the basis for the Turing Test, a test devised by pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing all the way back in 1950. Here in 2018, machines have gotten considerably smarter, and the idea of a machine that thinks is no longer quite as crazy as it sounded almost 70 years ago. It’s therefore no surprise that the question of what separates humans from machines is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds — as a new “Minimal Turing Test” makes clear.

Devised by two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania, the new spin on an old classic asked 1,089 human participants to name a single word they would use to explain just what makes humans, well, human.

“We proposed a new method for studying how people think about other kinds of agents, or people that belong to other social groups — essentially give one word to prove your identity,” John McCoy, an assistant professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, told Digital Trends. “We asked people to give one word to prove that they’re not a smart robot, and to judge the words of others. We used techniques from natural language processing to cluster the words that people gave, and modeled people’s words and judgments with ideas from game theory.”

The words human respondents used to prove their humanity included “love” (a massive 14 percent of responses), various answers relating to emotions, compassion, religion, and … “poop.” Because what are we as the planet’s current most intelligent beings if not for lovers of toilet humor?

In fact, poop had a whole lot of significance for the project. After the answers had been collected, the researchers randomly formed pairs of words and then told another group of 2,405 participants to choose which word they thought was from a human and which one was from a robot — despite the fact that both were selected by humans. “Poop” was the one that most people thought had been picked by a human. The least successful, for obvious reasons, was “robot.”

“Most of the words make sense once you see them, but they’re not necessarily what I would have predicted ahead of time,” Tomer Ullman, a postdoctoral associate in the Computational Cognitive Science group at MIT, told us. “Some of the words still have us scratching our heads. That the taboo category word beat out everything else isn’t something I would’ve bet a lot of money on before we ran the study, though it may seem obvious in retrospect.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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