TIME Artificial Intelligence

Why I’m Not Impressed By the ‘Thinking’ Computer

Sorry brainiac, you're not fooling anyone
Sorry brainiac, you're not fooling anyone Laguna Design; Getty Images

A machine finally passes the legendary Turing test and convinces users they're communicating with a real person—but the achievement is less than it seems

Huge news for people raising 13-year-olds who can’t get enough of that particular hell. Now there’s a computer program that can simulate the experience too!

That’s the headline that has set the computer world buzzing, as word comes out of the Royal Society in London that for the first time, a computer has passed the legendary Turing test, which had stood unmet since 1950. Named for computer pioneer Alan Turing—who famously declared that if a computer were ever developed whose behavior was indistinguishable from a human’s, the machine must then be said to be capable of thought—the test required at least 33% of human subjects to be fooled into thinking they were conversing with a human during a keyboard exchange with a computer that lasted five minutes.

So one computer finally achieved that, posing as a 13-year-old boy named Eugene Goostman who, like most kids, likes candy and hamburgers, and, like fewer kids, is the son of a gynecologist. That means he might have picked up a disproportionate amount of information about medical arcana or have other bits of knowledge more or less unique to him, but would otherwise be unremarkable. And that, in turn, pretty much describes the clumpy, uneven knowledge base of most kids—which was the whole idea. As Vladimir Veselov, “Eugene’s” developer explained, this allowed the program to “claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn’t know everything.”

But here’s the thing: the point of the Turing test is not so much to give the computer a pop quiz on medicine or current events, it’s to create a program that can follow the thread of a conversation in a believable way. And if you’ve chosen a 13-year-old as your model for that, you’ve set your bar pretty low. I’m raising a 13-year-old even as we speak, and I can tell you there is no age group on the planet as adept at the art of the unresponsive non-sequitur as hers. If I ask her if she’s done her home work, the answer could just as easily be “yes,” “no” or “tapioca.” If I ask what she wants for dinner she will hear that question—I’m sure she hears it—and then respond by complaining that her sister is annoying her. These are, you will note, technically answers. The fact that they are answers that have nothing to do with the question I asked seems not to be relevant to her.

Not that a computer modeled on my 11-year-old would be any more responsive—unless it was a computer built with eyes that could roll on cue whenever I say something the program considers embarrassing, which would be more or less all the time. And certainly, a 14-, 15- or 16-year-old computer program would be little better, since it wouldn’t be required to do much more than send out remote commands to slam doors and then sit in utter, world-weary silence no matter what you said to it.

So nice try, Turing guys. But if you really want a meaningful win, you’re going to have to aim a little further up the age spectrum. If you don’t believe me, ask my daughter. I predict her answer will be “purple.”

TIME human behavior

Rats Regret Making Bad Decisions, Study Finds

Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

A new study shows that rats may rue the road not taken, just as humans do

Scientists used to think only humans felt regret, but new research suggests that some members of the animal kingdom also regret bad choices.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center created an experiment called “restaurant row” which consisted of four different food stops a rat could make. At each entrance, a tone sounded that indicated how long the rat would have to wait to receive food. A rat could either stay, or choose to try something else. The researchers compared this to humans opening a door at a Chinese restaurant and seeing a long line, so deciding to go to the Indian restaurant across the street instead.

The rats had preferences for specific foods and would only wait a certain amount of time to get it. The researchers decided to see what would happen if the rats skipped a ‘good deal’ only to discover a ‘bad deal’ at the next place. For example, the rat would skip an entrance where it thought the wait was too long, only to find the wait at the next door was even longer. To the surprise of the researchers, when the rats made a bad choice they stopped and looked back. This, the researchers surmised, suggested they regretted their decision.

The researchers then used imaging to study the brain activity of the rats and found that when a rat made a mistake, the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain–the part of the brain believed to process regret in humans–was activated.

Although the regret response of the rats was similar to humans, the University of Minnesota researchers said they were unsure whether rats have the same reflection about decisions as humans do. But they said the study shows that animal models may be used to better understand human behaviors.

TIME Environment

Carbon Regs Will Help Your Health More Than the Planet’s

EPA coal pollution
Carbon dioxide is the chief target of EPA regulations, but they'll also help curb conventional pollutants Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Public health—through cleaner air—will benefit more from EPA carbon rules than climate change, and that's O.K.

When the White House rolled out the proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on power-plant carbon emissions on June 2—regs that will reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels—President Barack Obama attended a conference call with a number of public health groups, including the American Lung Association. Obama talked about the importance of treating carbon as a pollutant, of investments in energy efficiency that would cause electricity bills to shrink, of the momentum behind the move to a low-carbon economy.

But he spent much of his time talking about the health benefits that would come as the regulations cracked down on coal plant pollution:

“I got a letter from Dian Coleman, who is a mother of four. Her three kids have asthma. […] She keeps her home free of dust that can trigger asthma attacks. Cigarettes aren’t allowed across the threshold of her home. But despite all that, she can’t control the pollution that contributes potentially to her kids’ illnesses, as well as threatening the planet. We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing something on behalf of Dian, and doing it in a way that allows us also to grow the economy and get at the forefront of our clean energy future.”

Carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant—at least, not in the sense that breathing it in damages health. (If it were, trees would be a lot more dangerous.) CO2 does cause climate change, which in turn can directly threat health by increasing ozone levels, intensifying heat waves and floods and even worsening allergies, all of which the White House detailed in a new report out today. But Obama and his officials have been talking up a different sort of public health benefit that will come with the regulations: the reduction of dangerous, conventional pollutants like nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and simple soot. “Our role in this initiative is to protect public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told me in an interview last week. “It’s key in this rule that when we lower carbon, we reduce traditional pollutants.”

The EPA says that the regulations will reduce those conventional pollutants by more than 25% over the lifetime of the rules as a co-benefit. That in turn will avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and nearly 500,000 missed work or school days. That might just be the beginning—the more we learn about air pollution, the more dangerous it seems even at lower levels. A new study from the University of Rochester found that exposure to air pollution at a young age caused changes in the brains of mice, including an enlargement in the parts of the brain that is seen in humans with autism and schizophrenia. And air pollution is still a major problem in the U.S.—a recent report from the American Lung Association found that nearly 5 in 10 Americans live in places where the air can be dangerous to breathe.

There’s an added political value to the White House’s focus on the public health benefits of carbon regulations. Note the huge partisan gap on the issue in recent polls: climate change, unfortunately, remains an area where there is deep political division. But air quality and public health is something that Americans can get together on, at least somewhat, without the conversation turning into a debate over temperature trends and IPCC assessments. That could help these regulations, which are supported by a strong majority of Americans, overcome kneejerk Republican opposition. “You don’t need to have a debate over climate change,” says Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana and a member of the White House task force on climate change. “Who doesn’t want to breathe clean air?”

As I wrote last week, the EPA regulations by themselves will have only a small impact on total U.S. carbon emissions, and a negligible one globally. The hope is that these rules are just the beginning, that they will help prompt other countries to push their own carbon-cutting efforts further, and encourage businesses to find even better ways to accelerate the clean energy revolution. But countless Americans will breathe easier—literally—thanks in part to these rules. That’s reason enough to celebrate.

TIME Research

We Evolved To Withstand Getting Punched in The Face

University of Utah
University of Utah An artist's impression of how human faces may have evolved to minimise injury from punches.

"When modern humans fight hand to hand, the face is usually the primary target," a researcher says

Humans evolved to minimize injury incurred by punches to the face, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Utah observed that the fossils of australopiths—bi-peds that lived 4-5 million years ago and directly preceded the human genus Homo—had robust cheek, jaw, eye and nose features. Scientists had previously thought that the australopiths’ strong facial features were an evolutionary adaptation to their hardy diet, but the study published in the journal Biological Reviews suggests that they were likely eating softer foods like fruit.

Dr. David Carrier, the lead researcher in the study, told the Guardian that the australopiths’ hands had adapted to form a fist, allowing them to engage in hand-to-hand combat. “When modern humans fight hand to hand, the face is usually the primary target,” Carrier said. Carrier and his team found that the bones that had evolved to be more robust were typically the features that suffer the greatest impact in a fight.

The study also shows that while the faces, hands and up-right nature of australopiths evolved to allow for improved fighting, modern-day humans have less robust facial features. Carrier told BBC that humans have less of a need to protect themselves because violence is no longer a driving evolutionary factor. “There’s a temporal correlation,” Carrier said.

TIME Internet

This Is The First Vine Ever Recorded in Space

The best view in the galaxy

Fact: Astronauts have the best view in the galaxy. American astronaut Rick Wiseman has posted a super cool Vine from the International Space Station of the Earth’s terminator line (the line that separates the parts of the world experiencing day and night) with the sun circling in the background.

Check it out!

TIME space travel

NASA Is Using a Giant Laser to Transmit Videos From Space

Ditch your WiFI

NASA has begun using a specialized laser to transfer high-definition video from the International Space Station, an innovation that will allow the agency to transfer information from space much more rapidly than it’s currently capable of doing.

The technology uses a focused beam modulated from a 2.5 Watt, 1,550-nanometer laser to transmit information through space, NASA said. The laser increases the speed at which information is transmitted from 10 to 1,000 times over current radio transmissions from space.

On Thursday, the agency transferred a 175-megabit video from space to the ground in 3.5 seconds.

NASA likened the innovation to an upgrade from dial-up to DSL.

“It’s incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station,” Matt Abrahamson, the mission’s manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

TIME space

SPHERE’s First Image Looks Like The Eye Of Sauron

This infrared image shows the dust ring around the nearby star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus and was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument in May 2014.
This infrared image shows the dust ring around the nearby star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus and was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument in May 2014. J-L Beuzit et al.—SPHERE / ESO

A new instrument built to view exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—has captured its first images, including this dust ring around a nearby star. SPHERE, as the instrument is called, has been installed at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. That places it squarely on Earth, but it seems to have offered a frightening peek into Middle-earth.

TIME planets

Researchers Discover Traces of the Planet That Helped Create the Moon

Getty Images

Researchers believe that a planet, named Theia, collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago, creating the moon from floating debris

Analysis of moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts has revealed remnants of Theia, the planet that researchers believe collided with Earth to create the moon 4.5 billion years ago.

Researchers have long hypothesized that Theia — named after the Greek goddess who was the mother of Selene, the goddess of the moon — collided with Earth and was destroyed upon impact. Remains of the colliding planet and debris from Earth were thought to have joined together, eventually forming the moon. The moon’s thin core suggests that it was created with the help of two other planets, but no hard evidence has been found to confirm the theory until now.

According to the study published in the journal Science, an analysis of different varieties of oxygen, called isotopes, in the lunar rocks reveals equal traces of both the moon and the colliding planet. The moon rocks also contain a rare material called enstatite chondrite, which is not found on earth, also suggesting that the moon was formed by planetary coalescing.

The team, led by Dr. Daniel Herwartz from the University of Goettingen, wrote to Science that previous analysis of the rocks showed little difference in isotopes, but that the recent analysis “supports the view that the Moon was formed by a giant collision of the proto-Earth with [an impactor].”

Despite the new discoveries, some scientists are still not convinced that the minor differences in isotopes confirm the big-impact hypothesis. Dr. Mahesh Anand from the Open University told BBC that the rocks shouldn’t be used to represent the entire moon and that “further analysis of a variety of lunar rocks is required for further confirmation.”



TIME space

How The Moon Was Born

Things weren't always so peaceful up there
Things weren't always so peaceful up there Larry Keller, Lititz Pa.; Getty Images/Flickr RF

An old theory of an ancient collision gets new life—thanks lunar samples from the Apollo era

Astronomers were pretty sure they’d long since solved the mystery of how the Moon was born. It was an open question until Apollo astronauts started hauling lunar rocks back to Earth in the late 1960’s, and scientists discovered they were chemically similar to the rocks back home. By the mid-1970s, they had the riddle figured out: billions of years ago, something the size of Mars smacked into the Earth, creating a Moon’s worth of molten debris that quickly cooled, moved into a stable orbit and became our familiar cosmic companion.

Over the ensuing decades, however, it became clear that Houston had a problem. The lunar samples were too similar to those on Earth. The two kinds of rock should have shown at least minor differences, reflecting the unique chemical makeup of the long-gone Mars-size cannonball which was dubbed Theia. But no matter how hard geochemists looked, they couldn’t find any. Theorists came up with a number of ways around the dilemma, most of them involving much more complicated collision scenarios, but as planetary scientist Robin Canup, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder told TIME last year, “Every time you add an extra complication, you reduce the overall probability of an event happening.”

You could keep your collision theory, in short, but only by assuming that the whole episode an utter fluke, so improbable that it shouldn’t have happened at all—exactly the kind of wild scenario that makes scientists wince. But a study just published in Science may have set things right. The chemical composition of Moon and Earth rocks, says lead author Daniel Hewartz, of the University of Gottingen, in Germany, turns out not to be so similar after all—close, but not identical. “The difference we found is very small,” he says. “It’s so small that previous studies couldn’t detect it.”

Hewartz’s analysis did detect it by concentrating on an abundance of oxygen-17, a rare version of the element that has nine neutrons in its atoms rather than the usual eight. “Our study shows that the moon has just a bit more O-17 than Earth,” Hewartz explains. “Just a bit” meaning a minuscule .012 percent more, but that’s enough. “This means that Theia had slightly more as well.”

Hewartz and his colleagues were able to spot such vanishingly small amounts of oxygen-17 thanks to a new technique they devised: seal the lunar rocks in a chamber filled with fluorine gas, then zap the sample with a laser to vaporize a tiny bit of it. The scientists then drain out gas plus vapor and send it through a chromatograph, which separates free oxygen liberated from the rock from the other gases. (It would be simpler just to zap the rock in a vacuum, but if you do that, says Hewartz, “it just melts.”)

Not only did the team see elevated O-17 in samples NASA provided them; they also saw it in samples other groups had already looked at without finding anything. That, says Canup, “tends to support their claim.” The only caveat, she warns, is that the difference they detect between Earth and the Moon is so small that there’s likely to be a debate over whether they’re seeing something real, or whether it’s simply an artifact of the way they interpret their raw data.

But arguments like that, she says, can be a good thing. “It’s going to prompt a lot more work on this topic, which will be great for the field.” And if Hewartz and company turn out to be right, it will reconfirm a theory scientists thought they’d proven during the Ford administration—a theory they were reluctant to see go simply because of its appealing simplicity. “It’s something,” as Harvard planetary scientist Sarah Stewart told TIME last December, “you could explain in a sentence to your grandmother.”

TIME space

Watch ‘The Beast’ Asteroid Fly Past Earth On This Livestream Today

A 1,000 foot-wide asteroid nicknamed “the Beast,” will travel peacefully past earth Thursday, sailing just three lunar distances from our planet’s surface. The celestial observation network Slooh will live webcast the Beast’s journey beginning at 2:30 p.m. EDT.

These rocky celestial objects are fairly common, but the Beast (formally known as HQ124) is notable for its proximity and its immense size.

“HQ124 is at least 10 times bigger, and possibly 20 times, than the asteroid that injured a thousand people last year in Chelyabinsk, Siberia,” Bob Berman, an astronomer with Slooh, told National Geographic.

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