Science & Technology

The Best Word to Convince People You're Not a Robot Is Kind of Gross

In basically any movie that features robots that look like people, there will be a scene where the hero has to figure out whether somebody is a real human or not — or even whether (twist!) they're human themselves. As it turns out, there's an easy shortcut that will convince basically anyone that you are the human you believe yourself to be. You just have to utter one magic word: "poop."

Making a Robo Call

Let's take a step back for a moment. What was going on here, and why did John McCoy and Tomer Ullman from MIT want to study it? It all boils down to what the researchers called a "Minimal Turing test." Devised by Alan Turing, a Turing test is a theoretical framework for determining whether a computer system can accurately be described as "intelligent." In short, if a human is communicating with both a computer and another human being and they can't tell which of those interlocutors is which, then the computer has passed the Turing test. In the MIT researchers' Minimal Turing test, human participants were asked to choose which of two words was picked by a human and which by a robot.

But this wasn't a real Turing test; it was more of a proof-of-concept to see how the human "judges" behaved under these circumstances. In the first part of the study, McCoy and Ullman wanted to find out what kinds of words people expected to choose as having come from a human. They asked about a thousand participants to submit a single word for the Minimal Turing test, and told to imagine that if a human submitted an answer judged to have come from a robot, that human would be put to death.

By and large, those participants — hopefully not fearing for their lives — chose words surrounding emotions or affection. The top choice was pretty predictable: "love" was submitted by 14 percent of the people asked. Besides emotional words, the top categories were religion ("God," "mercy," "faith"), food ("banana," "pizza," "ham"), non-human agents ("robot," "dinosaur," "monkey"), life and death ("alive," "pain," "sex"), and bodily functions ("fart," among many unmentionables). Also in that last category? "Poop." That's where things get interesting.

Of Bots and Bathrooms

The second part of the test looked more like a real Turing test, but it wasn't really. The researchers took a selection of those words, paired them together, and presented them to a new set of people as though one had been computer-generated and one thought up by a human being. Under this test, the word "love" performed admirably. It placed a solid second, being chosen as the human's word most of the time over eight of the nine other choices. It won most of the time against "robot," "human," "alive," "banana," "empathy," "compassion," "mercy," and "please." At this point, we probably don't have to tell you the one word that beat it out. "Poop" was chosen over "love" 69 percent of the time when the two words were paired together. It's gross, but ... we get it. After all, don't robots think in binary? There's no room for number two.

Perhaps predictably, the word "robot" was the worst-performing word on the list. The best it performed was against the word "compassion" (kind of a clinical word in its own right), but still, it only beat that emotional word 41 percent of the time. It's interesting to think that humans aren't that great at coming up with words that others will instantly recognize as human-generated, but as the researchers pointed out, just choosing the word was an intimately human act.

"Whatever your word, it rested on the ability to rapidly navigate a web of shared meanings, and to make nuanced predictions about how others would do the same. As much as love and compassion, this is part of what it is to be human." Aww. That's such a beautiful thought — especially for a paper that centered so strongly on having a potty mouth.

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Every year, an official panel of judges administers the Turing test to the latest computerized contenders. Besides awarding the computer that performed the best, they also award the human who was most often identified as a human. Step inside this strange world in Brian Christian's "The Most Human Human: What Talking to Computers Teaches Us About Being Alive" (it's free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 15, 2018

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