Few years ago I met a robot in a Japanese-style café in Osaka. She wore a traditional kimono and greeted me from where she sat in the corner of the dim room. She took my order and called it out to the barista at the bar: “One tea!”
But I knew she wasn’t doing it on her own the robot understood nothing. Somewhere upstairs, I knew, must be the human controlling this hyper-realistic android. Researchers call it the “Wizard of Oz” technique controlling a robot from a distance, perhaps fooling an unsuspecting passerby into thinking that the mechanical creature itself is alive.
People tend to think the robots are smarter than they really are. In a recent study by universities in Italy and Australia, researchers showed that people attribute mental experience and agency to robots, simply on the basis of their appearance. This sort of projection may be behind the unfortunate wording of popular news articles suggesting, for instance, that robots want to “take over the world” or that we may be in for a “robot uprising.”
You might create such a test using the original Turing test as a guide. First published in 1950 by Alan Turing, the test was conceived as a way to measure the progress of artificial intelligence with the technology of the time: computer terminals and keyboards. A person communicates with an unknown being via text on the screen and must guess whether the typed responses are being written by a human or software.
Does that mean that robots are close to passing the Turing test, too? Could we simply pop a software Chabot into a robot and be done with it? The answer is no, for many reasons. Factors such as human-like gaze, blinking, gestures, vocal tone, and other emotional expressions must be varied and natural, and timed together perfectly.
So how would a robot Turing test work in practice? We could look to the current Loaner Prize, which runs the test on catboats. The Loaner has challenges that run for five minutes, 25 minutes, and so on. The same times could be applied to robots. For example, we could imagine that a robot labeled “Turing 25” could mean that it would run up to 25 minutes without being revealed as non-human.
Robots like the one I saw in Osaka can help free us of menial and repetitive tasks, in the same way the dishwasher or washing machine revolutionized the role of women in society.
As robots get good at mimicking human behavior, people can be deceived into thinking they have human intelligence.