Thursday, 24 April 2008

DVD Review: The Best of BBC’s Turing Test Challenge

Our imaginary review copy of the DVD didn't come with a cover
so we paid someone to make this poor artist's impression of what it might look like.

The tenth season of Robot Wars, filmed in 2003, was one of the biggest disasters ever to happen to the BBC. The show’s producers initially came under fire for failing to notice that the robot created by Colin Pugh, a plumber from Chatterstoft, was not a robot at all, but contained Colin’s 8-year-old son, Mark, who controlled the machine from within. Mister Pugh’s duplicity only came to light when his creation, Attackbot IV, was defeated in the semi finals by NailGunTron, and pools of red liquid emanated from the losing robot’s carcass. Both Colin and NailGunTron’s creators are serving ten years in prison.

Added to this controversy was the disaster created in the final episode when Red BaronBot, a bi-plane robot created by students at Leicester University went out of control and crashed into the spectators’ area, killing 54 people, mostly children. Finally, house robot Sir Killalot was photographed by tabloid newspapers in a hotel with a famed topless model, adding more pressure on the show’s producers to end the program.

But the British public’s hunger for artificial-intelligence-themed game shows was too strong, and Robot Wars’ creators set about starting a new show. They came up with Turing Test Challenge.

TTC was first aired in 2006 on BBC2 and proved to be a massive hit, finishing second in the year’s television ratings (being narrowly beaten by the episode of Coronation Street in which everyone dies). The show’s formula is simple: teams create a computer program that they hope is smart enough to engage in typed conversation with a celebrity judge. The judge is also conversing with a second human in another room through a computer, and if they are unable to determine which conversation is with the computer, then the program’s creators have created an artificial intelligence. The team win a holiday to the Seychelles and £2000 in cash.

As with Robot Wars, the first season of the show, released this week on BBC DVD, is the most entertaining, if only for the honourable failures. The pilot episode, originally unaired and shown here for the first time, has Stephen Fry as the judge. The first computer program, written by a pair of teenagers from Bath fails spectacularly to converse with the erudite actor. Later in the episode, however, another team come close to winning the prize when Fry asks the human conversant what he thinks about the breeding techniques of the Southern fulmar.

Really, it is the celebrities who make or break an episode of Turing Test Challenge. While Stephen Fry and Ewan MacGregor both make excellent judges, Mohamed Al-Fayed is terrible, only asking the contestants questions about the Royal Family. Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher started well in his episode, seeing through all the contestants’ programs until he got frustrated with his task and reverted to typing scores of swear words into his keyboard, confusing both the artificial intelligence and the other human conversant.

The contestants themselves are relatively unremarkable; in some cases the programs made to simulate human language actually have more personality than their creators. The best example of this is Lingua Frank, an AI invented by Desmond Monroe, a professor of economics. Frank did so well in its test that the celebrity judge for that episode, Nigella Lawson, asked him out on a date. Also completely charming was the AI created by six-year-old Matthew from Margate, which answered every question and comment with the word “Why?”. In the end of season awards, this program was deemed ‘Most like a six-year-old’.

Turing Test Challenge is a very good DVD set, and a great gift for anyone who is interested in Artificial Intelligence, robots or nerds. And while the show is reason enough to buy this DVD, the extras are the icing on the cake, with some great out-takes, including the part when the producers have two humans converse with Ewan MacGregor as a joke, and he is convinced that they’re both robots. There’s also a great behind-the-scenes look at the show, hosted by Stephen Fry, who obviously fancies one of the producers.

Turing Test Challenge is out now on BBC DVD, available from all good former video stores and some bad ones too, probably.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Robots? Robots? What is a robot?hmm? I ask the question. It's out there. Answer it.............
Okay i'll answer it then. We are all robots controlled by one big robot deity known as "Magnetism". Magnets rule the world and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. People who try and dissuade you from the fact that magnets are superior to anything in the universe are in fact Robot agents covering up a fact that is "unbelievable". Don't believe everything a magnet tells you. He (a north pole magnet) would kill his wife (south pole) with a stick if it meant that the secret is kept.

Anyway i've got to go- there is a big, red horseshoe magnet at the door wielding a baseball bat and a cup of beans:

I haven't paid my magnetic bill for the quarter! Eek!

p.s. love the review......