A supercomputer has managed to fool people into thinking it was human, passing the famous "Turing Test" for the first time in an "iconic and controversial milestone" for artificial intelligence.
Mathematician Alan Turing, who helped crack the Enigma code during the Second World War and is considered the father of artificial intelligence, said a computer could be understood as having an ability to think if it was able to persuade 30 per cent of humans that it was a real person.
Eugene Goostman, a computer whose program was written by a team in Russia, has now succeeded, convincing just enough people that it is actually a 13-year-old child in a test held at the Royal Society in London. Some 33 per cent of the judges believed Eugene was a real boy, according to Reading University scientists who organised the test.
Kevin Warwick, a visiting professor at Reading, said: "In the field of artificial intelligence there is no more iconic and controversial milestone than the Turing Test, when a computer convinces a sufficient number of interrogators into believing that it is not a machine but rather is a human."
However he warned the breakthrough could make people more vulnerable than ever to internet scams and hackers.
"Having a computer that can trick a human into thinking that someone, or even something, is a person we trust is a wake-up call to cybercrime," he said. "The Turing Test is a vital tool for combating that threat.
"It is important to understand more fully how online, real-time communication of this type can influence an individual human in such a way that they are fooled into believing something is true, when in fact it is not."
Professor Warwick said there had been similar events before and some would argue that the test had already been passed. "However this event involved more simultaneous comparison tests than ever before, was independently verified and, crucially, the conversations were unrestricted," he said.
"A true Turing Test does not set the questions or topics prior to the conversations. We are therefore proud to declare that Alan Turing's Test was passed for the first time."
Vladimir Veselov, who helped create Eugene, said the program was "born" in 2001 and had been gradually improved over the years by the team in St Petersburg.
"We spent a lot of time developing a character with a believable personality," he said.
Five supercomputers competed during the test, which involved five-minute text conversations with the judges, including actor Robert Llewellyn, who played the robot Kryten in the TV show Red Dwarf. "Clever little robot fellow," he said on Twitter.
The public can talk to Eugene, who is meant to be a child from Odessa, Ukraine, on the website www.princetonai.com/bot/bot.jsp.
The site was difficult to access yesterday as word spread of its achievement, but Eugene seemed remarkably relaxed when asked about his historic achievement.
"I feel about beating the Turing Test in quite convenient way," Eugene said. "Nothing original."