Does Social Media Make Us Stupider?

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?

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  • Vinicius Vacanti

    Very interesting. Would the Twitter Turing Test also involve the account carrying on an @reply or DM conversation? That’s where it might fall apart.

  • Zach

    It would have to include @replies and DMs, but I think that they are such time insensitive forms of communication that people could be fooled by a machine much more easily than they would in a more synchronous conversation such as IM.

  • whitneymcn

    But isn’t the definition of a Turing test that there’s a direct conversation between the machine and the human?

    I absolutely agree that a relatively straightforward script could create a human-seeming Twitter account by Twittering about stuff that’s current/trending, particularly if you allow the bot to simply recycle actual human Tweets, but I also think that’s something rather different from passing a Turning test.

  • Zach

    It’s definitely something different than passing a Turing Test, but it is also an adaptation of the Turing Test that reflects modern virtual communication through social media.

    The point of the post is really “Hey, if the way we increasingly communicate can be replicated by a relatively straightforward script, and more traditional forms of communication cannot be replicated by 50 years of research, what does that say about how intelligently we communicate through social media?”

  • whitneymcn

    I’m not certain about that; this brought to mind an experiment done some
    years ago, testing whether humans could reliably distinguish between poetry
    written by humans and poetry written by computers — and the answer is “not
    really.” But that doesn’t make poetry itself less valuable to readers.

    Moving on the the wild speculation, I wonder, though, whether the Twitter
    bots we’re talking about would be able to make the jump past “human seeming”
    to (for lack of a better phrase) “human feeling.”

    While it takes longer with a Twitter account than with a direct
    conversation, you get a feel for someone’s personality over time; with the
    bot, since you’d be taking snippets of personality (individual tweets) from
    a wide variety of people and stringing them together, would the bot start to
    “feel” off after you follow it for a while? I think so — I think that the
    lack of a core personality would start to show through, even if there was
    nothing obviously “wrong.”

    You could minimize this by only recycling the most mundane tweets you can
    find ["Having lunch. Thinking about going to a movie."], but I’ve never been
    entirely certain that those Twitter users are human to begin with, so I’m
    not sure what that’d prove. :-)

    [Poetry experiment ref:

  • Zach

    Thanks for the great feedback. The poetry study is a really interesting take on the Turing Test. I like the idea you bring up about “seeming” vs “feeling” human. I think the gap between the two widens as you move away from one-on-one chat into other forms of communication.

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