Prolific celebrity ‘tweeters’ Stephen Fry and Sarah Brown took part in a schools Twitter project last week, organised by the University of Edinburgh as a part of the centenary celebrations of scientist Alan Turing.
Schools from across Scotland took part in the ‘Twittest’ project, modelled on a test created by the wartime code-breaker and forefather of modern computing, to investigate whether computers can display sufficient intelligence to be mistaken for a human.
Professor Jon Oberlander, one of the events organisers, described the project as a “Turing Test re-imagined for the social media generation”.
He explained, “In Turing’s standard imitation game, an interrogator has to decide which other player — A or B — is a computer, and which is a human. To decide, the interrogator can only use responses to their written questions, so Twitter is actually perfect for this kind of test.
"Some tweeters in our system may not be who they claim to be: student, teacher, Paris Hilton, or software bot?”
Celebrities Stephen Fry and Sarah Brown supported the project, writing in specially written anonymous tweets which appeared alongside those of the other participants.
Pupils were asked to guess the origin of the tweets, and whether the authors were trying to hide their real identity.
Four pupils, who spotted the most obvious fake Tweets and contributed the best Tweets of their own, were awarded new 'Amazon Kindle Touch' e-readers at an event in the University’s Informatics Forum.
The results of the test were surprising, with only about half of the celebrities’ composed tweets being recognised as real.
The 'Twittest' organisers state that the project contributes to school curriculum objectives such as ethical discussion along with lessons about Internet safety and computer programming.
Mark Tennant, a teacher at Dunbar Grammar School, was delighted at its success, stating: “This contest really brought artificial intelligence to life.”
The University also gained from the project, which was essentially a real-world experiment, investigating the nature of new and unusual forms of communication arising through the use of social media.
As the organisers put it: “If Twitter asks ‘what are you doing?’ the project asks: what are you thinking, and are you thinking at all?”
Stephen Fry had this to say to the participants in a video message: “I congratulate you all on taking part. Alan Turing is one of my great heroes. His mathematical brilliance extended into the field of thinking about machines and whether or not they could think. Maybe one day machines will be like us — but I think that day is a long way off.”
A public lecture on the legacy of Alan Turing, and a research symposium reflecting on his key works, are being held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 10 and 11 May respectively.