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  • Writer's pictureGreg Robison

The Turing Test: Updated for the Chat Persona Age

Nathan: Over the next few days, you're going to be the human component in a Turing test. Caleb: Holy sh*t! Nathan: Yeah, that's right, Caleb. You got it. Because if the test is passed, you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man. Caleb: If you've created a conscious machine, it's not the history of man. That's the history of gods. -Ex Machina (2014)

26 February 2024


Artificial Intelligence (AI), the attempt to simulate human intelligence by machines, has evolved significantly since the topic first came up more than 70 years ago. The first phase of AI was based on algorithms and rule-based systems that mimicked specific aspects of human cognition. However, the introduction of machine learning, deep learning, and neural networks has significantly expanded AI's capabilities, enabling it to learn from vast amounts of data and perform complex tasks with super-human abilities. This evolution raises fundamental questions about how we understand, interact with, and evaluate AI systems, given their ever-increasing sophistication and prevalence in our daily lives.

The historical foundation of AI evaluation is the Turing Test, introduced by the British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950. Turing proposed a simple yet profound test to determine if a machine can display intelligent behavior on the same level as a human. In this test, a human evaluator interacts with an unseen entity (either a human or a machine) through a communication interface. If the evaluator cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test, demonstrating human-like intelligence. While groundbreaking for its time, the Turing Test has been subject to criticisms and debates, particularly regarding its emphasis on deception and language understanding as the only proxy for intelligence.

One of my thesis advisors, John Searle introduced the Chinese Room argument in 1980, further complicating the discussion about AI's capabilities compared to humans and potential consciousness. Through a simple thought experiment, Searle challenges the idea that a machine running a program can be said to understand or "know" anything. He imagines a scenario where a person, who doesn't understand Chinese, is in a room with a set of rules in English for working with Chinese symbols. The person can produce responses in Chinese that are indistinguishable from those of a native speaker but doesn't understand the language in any real sense. This argument underscores a distinction between simulating a cognitive process and genuinely understanding or experiencing it. With such philosophical challenges and rapid advancements in AI technology, there is a need to revisit and update AI evaluation criteria for 2024.

The Turing Test

The Turing Test, while groundbreaking at the time, has its limitations and has seen extensive criticism over the years. One fundamental criticism is that the test focuses solely on the machine's ability to mimic human conversation, equating linguistic ability with intelligence (hint: they’re not the same thing). There are many dimensions of intelligence, such as creativity, emotional understanding, and the ability to apply knowledge to varied contexts. Furthermore, the test does not account for the machine's understanding or consciousness; it only measures the output (the conversation) without considering what understanding, if any, underlies it. A machine could pass the Turing Test simply by being a sophisticated mimic, without any true understanding or cognitive processing, echoing concerns raised by the Chinese Room argument.

In the context of modern AI advancements, the Turing Test becomes moot when systems have surpassed the basic linguistic capabilities the Turing's Test evaluates. With the advent of advanced natural language processing and Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, computers can compose coherent and contextually relevant responses, sometimes even fooling humans into thinking they are interacting with another person. However, these advancements also highlight the test's inadequacies. Modern AI can perform specific tasks with super-human proficiency, such as playing complex games or diagnosing diseases, yet these capabilities do not align with the Turing Test's focus on human-like interaction. In an era where AI can drive cars, write poetry, and assist in medical diagnosis, is the ability to simulate a conversation the best measure of its intelligence?

The Chinese Room Argument

The implications of the Chinese Room argument for AI and consciousness are profound. Searle's argument fundamentally challenges the notion that computational processes can lead to understanding or consciousness, a cornerstone of strong AI or the belief that a properly programmed computer could be cognitively equivalent to a human mind. According to Searle, while machines can simulate human behavior (such as linguistic responses from chatbots), they cannot replicate the internal experience or understanding that comes with these behaviors. This distinction highlights a key philosophical question in AI: can a machine ever truly "understand" in the human sense, or is it limited to a superficial imitation of human behavior? The Chinese Room suggests that syntax (rules and symbol manipulation) alone is insufficient for semantics (meaning and understanding), a perspective that has deep implications for how we interpret AI's abilities and limitations, especially in the context of tasks that require deep understanding and not just surface pattern recognition.

However, the Chinese Room argument has attracted various criticisms and counterarguments of its own. One major criticism is that it commits a fallacy of division – assuming that what is true of a part (the person in the room) is true of the whole (the entire room system). Critics argue that while the person in the room doesn't understand Chinese, the system as a whole (the person, the rule book, and the room) might. This is akin to how individual neurons in the human brain might not "understand" language, but the brain as a whole does. The people who wrote the text that LLMs are trained on “understand” language in the same way the entire Chinese Room system does. Another counterargument argues that mental states (what we experience as beliefs, desires, etc.) are defined solely by their functional role. From this view, if a machine could perform the same functions as a human mind, it should be considered as having a mind.

Large Language Model Chatbots

Today’s LLM chatbots epitomize the Chinese Room itself and have made significant strides in mimicking characters that can convincingly emulate humans. These chatbots, powered by advanced natural language processing and generation algorithms like GPT-4, can be designed to generate text that closely resembles the tone, style, and characteristics of a helpful assistant, a programmer, a copywriter, or even specific individuals. By analyzing extensive textual data associated with these characters, these chatbots create responses that are consistent with their known traits, creating a persuasive illusion of interaction. Whether it's emulating the style and vocabulary of a teen talking about Baldur’s Gate 3 or the opinions of an early-adopter persona shopping for Vision Pro at the Apple store, these LLM chatbots can generate responses that capture the essence of the target personality. Their ability to maintain context and engage in coherent conversations adds to their convincing nature and can be used in various applications, such as virtual assistants, customer service, and even qualitative interviews, where the goal is to create engaging and immersive experiences.

While these LLM chatbots show impressive abilities, there are limitations to their character mimicry. They rely on existing textual data - to convincingly mimic a character, they require a substantial amount of data associated with that character to learn their patterns and characteristics. Expertise in developing convincing characters can make the difference between a believable chat partner and one that feels too generic or artificial. Despite these limitations, these modern-day, literal Chinese Rooms can read and write Chinese.

New Criteria for AI Evaluation in 2024

Given these impressive abilities, we need to update AI evaluation methods for 2024. Traditional methods like the Turing Test and concepts like the Chinese Room Argument were formulated in an era when AI's capabilities were primarily theoretical or rudimentary at best. These methods focus primarily on linguistic abilities and the imitation of human behavior, criteria that are becoming insufficient for evaluating today’s AI systems. Based on advanced machine learning algorithms, big data, and increasing amounts of computational power, current tools are capable of complex tasks that go far beyond simple conversation imitation, including autonomous decision-making, pattern recognition in vast datasets, and even “creative” processes in art and music. Therefore, evaluating AI solely based on human likeness or conversational abilities is no longer adequate. Modern criteria need to reflect the multifaceted nature of AI capabilities, including understanding context, adapting to new situations, ethical decision-making, and the ability to interact harmoniously and effectively in diverse social and cultural environments.

In proposing new criteria for AI evaluation, it's important to go beyond benchmarks and consider both technological advancements and the societal impact of AI.

First, evaluation should measure an AI's ability to learn and adapt. This process includes assessing how well an AI system can improve its performance over time, understand and adapt to new and unforeseen circumstances, and transfer learning from one domain to another. While today’s models are fixed at a point in time (the “P” in GPT stands for “Pre-trained”), future systems are likely to be more adaptable to new data or changing conditions.

Second, the evaluation criteria should consider the AI's integration and collaboration with humans, focusing on its ability to enhance human capabilities and work alongside human users. Cooperation is critical in contexts like healthcare, education, and customer service, where AI is not just a tool but a collaborator, one that still often needs a human’s finishing touch.

Third, AI's creative and innovative capacities should be assessed, especially in fields like design, art, and entertainment, where AI is not just automating tasks but also generating new ideas and concepts. How well do these tools augment human creativity without replacing humans?

Finally, the societal impact of AI should be a core component of its evaluation. This view includes the contributions to societal challenges, such as sustainability, accessibility, diversity, and public and mental health, and its ability to operate without bias, respecting privacy and ensuring fairness among all.

Ethical considerations and guardrails are also vital in AI evaluation, especially as AI systems become more autonomous and involved in critical decision-making processes. Evaluation criteria should include the assessment of an AI system's alignment with ethical standards and societal values, including ensuring that AI systems are transparent in their decision-making processes (and not opaque black boxes), accountable for their actions, and respectful of privacy and human rights. Additionally, AI systems should be evaluated for bias and fairness, ensuring that they do not perpetuate or exacerbate existing societal inequalities. The potential for AI systems to be misused or cause unintended harm should also be a critical part of their evaluation, requiring rigorous testing for safety and reliability. In essence, ethical considerations in AI evaluation are not just about preventing harm but also about ensuring that AI technologies contribute positively to society, enhancing human well-being and promoting a more equitable and just world.

Future Directions

The future of AI evaluation is likely to evolve in response to both technological advancements, both expected and unforeseen, and changing societal needs. One prediction is the emergence of more dynamic and continuous evaluation methods, moving away from one-time assessments to ongoing monitoring and adaptation. The rapid pace and learning capabilities of AI systems require evaluations that can keep pace. Furthermore, as AI systems increasingly interact with complex human environments, evaluation criteria are expected to incorporate more real-world testing scenarios, emphasizing AI's performance and impact in diverse settings. Another trend should be the increasing importance of transparency and explainability in AI evaluation. And as AI decision-making processes become more intricate, the ability for humans to understand and trust these processes will be critical, requiring AI systems that can explain their reasoning and decisions in a human-understandable manner.


The Turing Test, while revolutionary in its time, is primarily focused on linguistic mimicry and falls short in assessing the multifaceted capabilities of current AI systems, such as ethical decision-making, adaptability, and real-world problem-solving. Similarly, the Chinese Room argument does not capture the complexity and potential of current AI technologies. These traditional approaches, while foundational, are insufficient for evaluating the nuanced and rapidly advancing AI systems of today and definitely in the future. We need to update evaluation criteria that are in line with the technological advancements and societal implications of modern AI. As AI systems increasingly influence decision-making in critical areas such as healthcare, government, and financial services, the way we evaluate these systems must be robust enough and ensure they are safe, fair, and beneficial for society. The updated criteria must be capable of assessing AI not just for its computational efficiency or benchmark performance, but also for its ethical implications, transparency, and overall impact on human well-being.

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Final Thoughts

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