Our jobs could be under threat from the Eugene Goostmans of the world

Have you seen the movie Transcendence with Johnny Depp? I don't recommend it. Appallingly overblown sci-fi guff about a scientist who gets himself "uploaded" into a computer - becoming a glitchy, screen-based entity spouting platitudes in that spiky green font evil computers always seem to use. I saw it on a rainy afternoon and, as a little coding exercise, I thought I would try to upload my wife.

I made a little website with her picture and some computery fonts, and I got it to spit out some of her favourite phrases every now and then. It was surprisingly convincing and I remarked on this fact at the office the next day, wondering how reducible we all are to a few select words. My colleagues said they thought I could be "uploaded" with just the phrases "no", "make it shorter" and "do I have to do it now?".

I was reminded of all this by the recent nonsense about a computer passing the Turing test. An excitable press release got a lot of credulous journalists pumped up about declaring a "supercomputer" had convinced a group of judges that it was actually a person.

The reality was slightly less overwhelming. A chatbot had convinced a small number of preselected judges, in a five-minute conversation, that it was Eugene Goostman – a 13-year-old with English as a second language. That’s not really proof of strong artificial intelligence, but people are really desperate to believe in this stuff.

With a good 'stop list', a chatbot would be less likely to swear at customers than human operators

There’s a phenomenon called pareidolia: the tendency to see significant things – for example, faces or images – in random visual stimuli, such as clouds or, well, toast. Our brains are wired to find patterns in things, whether they are there or not.

I’ve always thought that explains a lot about brands – and branding seems like the perfect use for a slightly convincing chatbot.

Most brands would struggle to attain the emotional range and depth of a 13-year-old boy anyway, so it shouldn’t be too much of a programming challenge. And with a good "stop list", it would be less likely to swear at awkward customers than your regular human operators.

Over the next few years, software will continue to eat our jobs – more and more of what you and I do will be taken over by weakly intelligent computers. They are cheaper, more reliable and more loyal. Perhaps you should search for Eugene Goostman and have a chat.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service


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