The charge of the chatbots: how do you tell who’s human online?

Automated ‘voices’ that were supposed to do mundane tasks online also now spread hate speech and polarise opinion. Are they a boon or a threat?

Alan Turing’s famous test of whether machines could fool us into believing they were human – “the imitation game” – has become a mundane, daily question for all of us. We are surrounded by machine voices, and think nothing of conversing with them – though each time I hear my car tell me where to turn left I am reminded of my grandmother, who having installed a telephone late in life used to routinely say goodnight to the speaking clock.

We find ourselves locked into interminable text chats with breezy automated bank tellers and offer our mother’s maiden name to a variety of robotic speakers that sound plausibly alive. I’ve resisted the domestic spies of Apple and Amazon, but one or two friends jokingly describe the rapport they and their kids have built up with Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home Hub – and they are right about that: the more you tell your virtual valet, the more you disclose of wants and desires, the more speedily it can learn and commit to memory those last few fragments of your inner life you had kept to yourself.

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Computers have learned to make us jump through hoops | John Naughton

Machines are supposed to be tools that serve human ends, but the relationship is slowly shifting – and not in our favour

The other day I had to log in to a service I hadn’t used before. Since I was a new user, the website decided that it needed to check that I wasn’t a robot and so set me a Captcha (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). This is a challenge-response test to enable a computer to determine whether the user is a person rather than a machine.

I was presented with an image of a roadside scene over which was overlaid a grid. My “challenge” was to click on each cell in the grid that contained a traffic sign, or part thereof. I did so, fuming a bit. Then I was presented with another image and another grid – also with a request to identify road signs. Like a lamb, I complied, after which the website deigned to accept my input.

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