Build Stuff That is Human

Build Stuff That is Human

Sunday August 26, 2012,

4 min Read

In the year 1950, a certain individual proposed a simple party game involving three people. One of them was a man, another a woman, who would both be seated inside rooms and would give back typed answers to questions asked. The third person was to identify which room hosted the man and which one the woman through questioning. And then the party game was slightly modified with the characters in the game replaced. That seemingly simple modification was to result in a test that would inspire generations to come. It would go on to spark the imaginations of scientists and technologists, story writers and film makers alike and shape the evolution of the science and technology over the next several decades. From search engines to speech recognition systems to the self driving cars of today, the inspiration for these continue to stem from that thought, popularly referred to as the Turing Test proposed by Alan Turing, arguably the father of modern computer science.

The modification that Turing made to the game was to replace the man and woman in the game with a man and a machine. The goal of the interrogator was to find the “man” amongst the two. If the machine could pass off as a human being without being detected (more than 50% of time), then the machine is considered to have passed the Turing test. “Can the machine pass off as a human?”

At the outset, the Turing test seems like a subject of fantasy or something more relevant for folks building the next generation robots or computer vision systems. But on the other hand, in it, one can draw a thumb-rule that anyone who is building things (no matter what it is) can apply: “Build stuff that is human”. In the age that we are in, sixty years since the time Turing test was proposed, when we can believe machines to pass some form of the Turing test, it can truly form the basis and inspiration of how we build things. For entrepreneurs and engineers raring to building something new, here is a tip - “pick a thing that has already been built. Add that human touch - you dont have to make it human and get it to pass the Turing test - just that missing touch”. The human touch could be some emotional aspect or fuzzy intelligence that is unique to our species! Doing so is not trivial, but entirely possible and it can make a whole lot of difference. Let me give a simple example.

Let us suppose you are building an ecommerce website. What most people do is to upload their entire inventory of products online and expect people to buy it. Here’s what you could do different. The most important aspect missing in an online store is the human touch - a.k.a. sales personnel. A sales personnel in the offline store would do a bunch of things: showcase the shop well, understand your budget, offer appropriate discounts and do some upselling as well. Is there a way to make the site do all of this and get you to buy things? Yes, that is possible - thanks to one of the fascinating fields of computer science called “Information Retrieval (IR)”. By doing some big data analysis of the user actions on the site, it should be possible to figure out the user’s intent of visiting the site (e.g he has bought a new house and is trying to furnish it), the budget of the user, his personal preferences (color, material, brand etc) and do all that the sales person would do. This would bring the much needed human touch and warmth to the site that can drastically improve conversions on the site. IR is one such (powerful) technique to add the human element, as shown in this example and I do plan to cover IR in my forthcoming columns. But that said, depending on what you build, figure out what makes sense in your context - who knows, a simple extra feature on top of an existing thing could make it look all powerful and human!

Okay, as we talk of Turing test, my mind cannot stop extending the imagination a little more and think of the day machines will take over the human race. Then the machines would devise the “Reverse Turing Test” - “Can a human pass off as a machine?”. What do you think? I think a man can’t, even Rajini Kan’t ;)

Vinodh is the head of BloomReach India and can be reached at @vinodhtweets

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