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A contest today at the Computer Museum in Boston will try to determine whether an interactive computer program can hoodwink users into thinking it is a human being.
The contest, which counts three Harvard professors among its planners, takes up a challenge made in the 1950s by the British mathematician Alan M. Turing.
In Turing's test, a person holds a "conversation" with a person and a computer and then tries to decide which was which. He considered passing this test proof of a computer's ability to think.
The Computer Museum's contest will place 10 judges, none of whom are computer experts, in a separate room from the computers or people they are talking to via computer terminals.
The judges must restrict their queries to a specific subject, such as sports or grocery shopping, in order to give the computers a chance, said Gail A. Jennes, senior public relations manager at the museum.
Jennes said the contest has piqued a surprising degree of interest.
"Every year we have major exhibitions, but this is an event," said Jennes. "It's attracting media attention from Germany, Italy, Japan, and all over the globe."
Jennes said that much of the excitement has stemmed from the unique format of the contest.
'First of Its Kind'
"It's a first of its kind, a trial run of the Turing test," she said. Turing, a theoretician working before the development of workable computers, never put his test into practice.
Pierce Professor of Philosophy Emeritus Willard V. Quine, one of three Harvard professors on the Turning test prize committee, said he does not expect any of the programs to trick their interrogators this time.
"I don't think anybody will be fooled as of tomorrow," Quine said. "The plan is to have such a competition year after year approaching the ideal limit of what really would fool people."
The program that does the best job of mimicking a human being will earn its creator a $1500 prize. New York philanthropist Hugh G. Loebner has pledged to award $100,000 to the inventor of the machine that first passes the Turing test without restrictions on the topic of discussion.
Though Quine said he does not think a machine will ever pass the open-ended, "no-holds-barred" Turing test, he speculated that one will eventually pass the restricted test.
Quine said such a machine could probably be created with technology available today, but the cost would be astronomical.
Thomas Professor of History of Science I.B. Cohen, who chaired the contest's planning committee, said he does not expect that a computer will ever be able to pass the unrestricted test.
McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis is also a member of the Turing test prize committee.
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