There is a lot of debate as to whether the internet makes us smarter or dumber. I’ve always argued that the internet increases our intelligence. It certainly makes us more knowledgeable, and while there is a certain level of intelligence necessary to grasp knowledge, it is our knowledge-base that allows us to act intelligently. It’s a classic Chicken-Egg Situation, but if I had to choose, I’d say knowledge is the more significant propellent of human achievement. The real difficulty of this debate lies in the fact that words like intelligence and knowledge can be hard to define, let alone measure.
One way to evaluate intelligence is to consider one’s ability to think. It’s not a great measurement for people since everyone (or so they say) can think, but it is an interesting way to evaluate the intelligence of machines. Because thinking is inherently human, Alan Turing proposed we could evaluate a machine’s ability to think through its ability to act as a human. If the machine could successfully impersonate a human, the machine would demonstrate its ability to think, and thus its intelligence. This is the test he proposed:
The Turing test is a proposal for a test of a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligence. It proceeds as follows: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. All participants are placed in isolated locations. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. In order to test the machine’s intelligence rather than its ability to render words into audio, the conversation is limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen. (Wikipedia)
No machine has ever passed the Turing Test.
And it’s certainly not for lack of trying. If you were on AIM in the late 90′s, you most likely participated in a Turing Test. Remember SmarterChild (or any of the other bots that popped on on instant messaging services)? If you do, then I’m sure you’ll agree with me that they were not very convincing human representations.
But what if we modernized the rules a little bit, and conducted a Twitter Turing Test — Given two twitter users, one human and one machine, could a third twitter user, who follows and is followed by both, determine which one is human and which one is not? The twitter bot would have access to the twitter api, and I imagine the algorithm would employ some of these strategies:
- Copy tweets that originiate from close social proximity to the targeted user, but wouldn’t show up in the user’s stream.
- Copy tweets that originiate from from a certain geographical area to give the appearance of living there
- Participate in trending topics, both global and local
- Share links found through StumbleUpon, Digg, or other social bookmarking services.
- Retweet popular tweets
I believe that someone could build a machine to pass the Twitter Turing Test today . Sure, it’s less intimate (and therefore less challenging) than the original Turing Test, but it’s also more analogous to our current forms of virtual communication. Social media has created a type of communication that is less synchronous, less personal, and (if you agree with Alan Turing about what the Turing Test proves) involves less thinking.
If social media is what will allow machines to pass the Turing Test, and the Turing Test is an indication of a machine’s intelligence, then what does that say about social media’s impact on our intelligence?