Friday, August 29, 2008

Applying Turing's Ideas to Search

Determining if a machine has human type intelligence ...

"Here’s how the game works: You’re on your computer, instant messaging away. One IM session is with a real person and the other is with an artificial intelligence (AI) program that’s designed to pose as a human being by using a casual conversational tone. The AI is able to respond in complete sentences with realistic syntax to mask its identity, even throwing in slang, canned humor, or typos.

Q: Who’s the most famous person in the world?

A: Used to be Tom Cruise, but hes gone a little crazy LOL ;-)

Would you be able to sort out which is the person and is which is the machine just by asking them questions?

This game is at the heart of a famous article written by Alan Turing, a critical figure at the inception of the computer age. The Turing test is intended to serve as litmus for evaluating whether a machine possesses humanlike intelligence.

Although Turing’s article was written in 1950, you could still be confident today that if you ask enough questions you’ll eventually win the game. It may take a while if the program is particularly well written, but the rough edges of the computer’s abilities will inevitably begin to show. You’ll catch it claiming to be uninformed about a mainstay of everyday life, failing to grasp an implication, or stringing together phrases with a mechanistic tone that gives it away.

Q: How would you describe a sunset to a sightless person?

A: The sun sets at the end of every day.


The Turing Test and User Interfaces

In December of 2006, while I was conducting usability testing of a search engine, it struck me that the Turing test has something important to teach us about interface design. It describes an ideal form of human-computer interaction in which people express their information needs in their own words, and the system understands and responds to their requests as another human being would. During my usability test, it became clear that this was the very standard to which my test participants held search engines.

Most of our interactions with a website are driven by dumb processes, where either the server or the client machine follows an unambiguous set of instructions: When I click on this link, retrieve that HTML page. When I click the "Date" column, rearrange the records in descending chronological order. When I select a term from a tag cloud, retrieve all documents tagged with that term and order them by their popularity scores.

Computers are intrinsically good at these types of things.

But search technology is different. It shortcuts around the a site’s formal information architecture. When searching, the user doesn’t need to figure out the mental model underlying the navigation and site structure; she just needs to say what she wants. Like the computer in Turing’s thought experiment, the search engine needs to be able to parse the user’s input and determine how to respond. That’s easy for a person, but far more difficult for a computer.

Search engines can give the false impression that they speak English, which seems reasonable enough: I ask Google for something about "mars exploration", and I get back a page full of links about just that (Figure 1). But of course even Google possesses nothing approaching a human understanding of language or ideas; its results are based on matching patterns and crunching quantifiable values."    (Continued via Boxes and Arrows, John Ferrara)    [Usability Resources]

Google does well with this search; it only needs to match words. - Usability, User Interface Design

Google does well with this search; it only needs to match words.


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