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.