Monday, September 21, 2015

What if Barbie could pass the Turing Test?

If you’re a movie fan or a cryptologist, you probably know who Alan Turing was.  In the movie ‘The Imitation Game’, the code breaker savant was portrayed by the omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch.  Among his contributions to society is the Turing Test. A machine passes the test when a human interlocutor cannot determine if they are conversing with said machine or with a human.

Toymaker Mattel now endeavors to have its classic doll, Barbie, pass the Turing Test – at least when conversing with a 9 year-old girl.  In a wonderful article in the New York Times magazine, James Vlahos describes the development of a soon-to-be released Barbie with the artificial intelligence to hold a real conversation with its (her?) human companion. 

What most interested me is the idea that it’s not necessary to pass the Turing Test if your human companion knows a machine’s limitations but treats it like a human anyway.  If you’ve had kids (or remember being one), you know that a youngster can have elaborate, imaginary conversations with a stuffed bunny, the family pet or with Barbie.  No response required. 

So, what if Barbie could talk back?  Would a child know that Barbie is just a toy just as she knows that Fido is just a dog?  Probably.  Would Barbie pass the Turing Test?  Probably not.

The implications are interesting if not yet well understood.  A study done by economists at Deloitte and Oxford University reports that technology has been changing the nature of the work we do for centuries, eliminating the most monotonous, dangerous or physically challenging work.  Yet, when technology destroyed jobs, it created many more new ones.

The report also provides a list of those likely to lose their jobs to technology in the next 20 years. At the top of the list – are you ready for this? – Telephone Salesperson.

It took a moment for that to sink in.  What if the recorded robo-call you received just as you sat down to dinner was from Barbie instead of a recorded message?  Or, to turn it around, what if Barbie were programmed to answer 800 numbers instead of being programmed to talk with 9 year-olds?  Hold queues would disappear. 

Could she handle it?  Maybe not today…. But soon!

What of the workforce as a whole?  It’s easy to assess the historical impact of creative destruction on people’s jobs.  Assembly line workers who lost jobs to robots needed to be retrained for something new. 

On the other hand, it was once thought that accountants would lose their jobs to Excel Spreadsheets.  Instead, they have prospered by using that tool to offer new services. 

And, so it goes.  Jobs that barely existed at the turn of the Century are now plentiful --- webmasters, solar panel installers, optical engineers – while others have faded away – telephone operators, draftsmen, travel agents.

Futurists like MIT’s David Autor and Andrew McAfee suggest that we might see a barbell effect.  Those in very high skill professions – brain surgeons, for example – will use technology to be more productive and effective at their jobs.  Others, like legal secretaries and the aforementioned Telephone Sales people, are vulnerable to being pushed down the compensation ladder to personal service jobs like nursing assistants or hotel workers. So, high-income professions will become more productive and create more value while low-income jobs become more numerous.  The middle gets hollowed out.

McAfee is optimistic, telling the Huffington Post “the technological progress we are experiencing is the best economic news on the planet, bar none. It will increase the material bounty of our world, giving us higher volume, more variety and better quality goods and services at lower prices.”

He worries, however, about how quickly the workforce can adapt.  Our public schools still prepare students for the jobs of the 20th Century.  Our infrastructure is crumbling and our government’s policies stifle entrepreneurs.

Technology improves productivity and drives economic growth.  People lose jobs as it happens.  It’s an unstoppable force. 

Big companies and government are not driving these changes.  Consumers are.  We prefer low-friction, efficient service.  It’s easier to shop on your smartphone than to go to Wal-Mart.  It’s easier to print your boarding passes at home than to wait in line at the airport.  And, it’s easier to send an email than to mail a letter. 

We can’t stop the unstoppable.  We need to find ways to deal with it.



  1. Stephen E. Reade 里德斯蒂夫
    That's only half the issue. The other half is ... what does Barbie-the-bot cost? Just as human workers cost money and produce output, so does Barbie. Decades ago people feared robots would replace most hourly workers. Turned out that they were too expensive for the output they produced. I think that's the crucial question, the crucial turning point.

  2. Mike Simon
    Re: Phone bank operators being replaced, how many times do you key in your account information so that the computer can route you to the correct customer service area. Then the first thing they ask for is all the same information. How much would call center productivity increase if the information you already provided popped up on the screen automatically. And that's just one small improvement. We're already seeing bank branches closed as consumers (me and others) do all their check deposits with their smart phones,....I'm guessing many more labor reductions of this type.

    1. Michael Blazin
      Having you provide the info again in many cases has another justification. During your interaction with a person, he or she makes an evaluation of whether you really are who you say you are. Your demeanor, background noise and pauses after requests for same or new data are clues to whether someone else is trying to exploit a small piece of personal data into larger access. As you note, a high school programmer can write code to automatically move a piece of key entered data to next agent. The firms have that skill and their agents are likely sitting there with your complete file on screen.

  3. Richard Morris
    What if you could put shoes on a snake? Would you be able to teach him to tap dance?

  4. Mary Thewlis
    I've spoken to call centre operators that I didn't think would pass the Turing Test, and they were supposedly human.