Stabbed with a Towel

Jon Day · The Loebner Prize

In 1990 Hugh Loebner inaugurated the Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence, awarded annually to the computer chat program, or ‘chatbot’, that can most convincingly mimic the typed conversation of a human being. Loebner says it’s ‘the first formal instantiation’ of a Turing test; Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of AI, has called it ‘obnoxious and stupid’.

Loebner makes his money from portable crowd-control fencing and roll-up disco dancefloors, and when I talked to him he didn’t seem that interested in AI or in the philosophical implications of the Turing test. He says his goal is ‘100 per cent unemployment’, and that he was motivated to sponsor the prize in order to develop computer intelligence and rid the world of work. In the meantime, he’s a vocal campaigner for the legalisation of prostitution, one of the reasons he’s had trouble finding institutions willing to host the award (he’s twice held it in his apartment). This year the event took place at the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at Exeter University.

The audience sat in a small room, watching two conversations unfold in real time on a giant screen: one human, one computer. Occasionally the chatbots wouldn’t play ball and had to be reset. The judges had different strategies. Some asked about current affairs – the death of Steve Jobs; the resignation of Liam Fox – others posed riddles: ‘Would it hurt you if I stabbed you with a towel?; ‘What’s bigger, a large tooth or a tiny mountain?’; ‘Describe the chair you are sitting on.’ The bots tended to get caught in conversational feedback-loops, repeating identical answers if asked the same question, or ignoring their interlocutors entirely.

At lunch I asked one of the entrants, a computer engineer called Danny, if he was disappointed by his bot’s performance. He said he wasn’t: he viewed this year’s event as a training exercise; he’d be back next year. He was worried about the ‘terrible fragility of the human mind’, he told me over our limp quiche and miniature Cornish pasties: for humanity to survive, he said, we’d need to create machine-consciousness, to allow us to cross the hostile chasms of interstellar space in comfort.

After lunch we traipsed into the ‘3D Visualisation Suite’ to listen to Loebner’s rambling post-competition address, during which he compared himself to Genghis Khan and told us we should all try to ‘harness the power of chaos’. I asked him what he made of philosophical objections to the Turing Test as a measure of machine consciousness and he waved me away distractedly. ‘Intelligence is like pornography,’ he said. ‘I can’t define it, but I like it when I see it.’ It turns out this is one of his favourite maxims. He went on to talk about his plans to revolutionise public transport using rollercoasters and finished with a paean to the ball bearing. Loebner also gives an award each year to the confederate judged ‘most human human’. It’s a prize he would have some trouble winning.


  • 22 October 2011 at 3:45am
    hugh.loebner says:
    The contest was held in my apt. 3 times.

    I was discussing chaos theory as applied to society and used Ghenghis Khan as an example; he came from nothing and in 25 years conquered more land than the Romans did in 300 years. I consider him the greatest man to have ever lived. I am *nothing* compared to him. However, chaos theory states that the smallest input can have profound consequences. Think of a few hanging chad in Florida and the election of George Bush. Therefore even a nobody such as I can affect the world.

    A few words about transportation.

    1. The US uses 27 quadrillion BTU's of energy for transportation.

  • 22 October 2011 at 4:14am
    hugh.loebner says:
    (hit the submit button by mistake rather than preview)
    2. According to Newton's 1st law of motion it requires ZERO energy to move (an object in motion continues in motion absent an outside force. ) I'm am an atheist, but if you believe in God give thanks for this gift.
    3. The "outside force," aka friction, can be _almost_ eliminated with the roller bearing (coefficient of rolling friction ~.0018)
    4. The kinetic energy of a moving object can be converted into stored potential energy by rolling uphill - no heat, light, noise, etc energy is lost.
    It follows that a roller coaster is the ideal transport system.
    It need not be a thrill ride; the slopes can be quite gentle, it's the height that counts.
    The roller coaster would work and it would solve many of society's problems. Whether it can be implemented is another matter.

    Hugh Loebner

    • 22 October 2011 at 8:40am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ hugh.loebner
      Interesting to read the post and then the response from the subject. What you don't tell us is who won the prize and how much did she win? There's always room for some eccentric views on the universe but Genghis Khan as "the greatest man to have ever lived"? Do you use the same criteria to decide on the winner of your award? If so, how many problems did Genghis Khan actually solve to make him worthy of this title?

  • 24 October 2011 at 2:49am
    outofdate says:
    As I like to point out to certain English bachelors who believe Herr Hitler to have been a magnificent strategist, anyone can invade Russia for five minutes, it's holding on to it that's the challenge.

    • 24 October 2011 at 3:21pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      Hasn't been tried quite so often as the perpetual-motion thing, but still not worth putting your money on, either.

      Meanwhile, proponents of AI must be thrilled to see it associated with this kind of flimflammery. Minsky was right to respond sourly -- was even mild and moderate, maybe.

    • 25 October 2011 at 3:52am
      outofdate says: @ Bob Beck
      I dunno, if you run the rollercoasters from the North Pole you've got a slope all the way to the equator, so that part makes sense to me.

    • 25 October 2011 at 2:32pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      Yes, north being synonymous with up -- a problem however being that while the slope would be extremely gentle near the pole, requiring a push to get started, it'd be alarmingly steep, approaching vertical, near the equator, requiring some really heavy-duty brakes. Presumably the energy absorbed by those brakes could be used to power that push.

      It makes about as much sense as finding much significance in the fact of this or that bearing or other machine part being *almost* frictionless. Overall, the universe is *almost* empty. The difference between *almost* and *perfectly* is, most people agree, pretty significant.

  • 1 June 2012 at 3:35pm
    DannyG says:
    Fun and cheeky article, Jon. HL is indeed a colourful character - fantastic that you got him commenting at the end of your piece! I had a chance to see him at work at this year's Loebner Prize. I wrote up my experiences, peppered with a little of the history and philosophy behind the competition and chatbots. It was interesting to read that this year's winner - Mohan Embar– eschewed the usual tactic of building a backstory (and ultimately a liar-bot) for his robot.

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