Can your product pass the Turing Test?

Before you start huffing and puffing, let me explain what I mean. I don’t mean Turing Test in the usual sense. Let’s take the example of Google Maps. Imagine a Turing Test of a restricted variety in which you ask standard mapping questions to two agents, one being human and the other being Google Maps, in a language just powerful enough to ask mapping questions. No free-flow conversation in a human language is permitted. This restricted language could be akin to the mapping API Google provides. Can the receiver of answers distinguish a human from Google Maps? For the sake of argument, assume that response time is not an issue here.

While you think about this, let me jump ahead and address smart alecks who will inevitably get hot under the collar at the prospect of being matched by a machine and protest that the inability to identify agents correctly still doesn’t prove that Google Maps is intelligent. To make their case, they might cite the case of an electronic calculator. They’d say that the results of the calculations are the same independent of how they’re performed. So the two agents will give identical answers and hence become indistinguishable to the receiver. But certainly a calculator is not intelligent. Hence, neither is a mapping service like Google’s.

I retort thusly (as a computer from last century might say). One, I wasn’t really talking about intelligence, you questionably-intelligent aleck! I was simply asking if Google Maps will pass the restricted Turing Test. Who cares if Google Maps is intelligent? This common confusion seems to spring from mixing up intelligence with being a human. And sure enough, Turing Test is ultimately not really a test for intelligence, which no one has properly defined anyway. It’s really a test to verify if the responding agent behind the screen is human, a far more easily defined concept.

Two, the smart aleck’s argument must be flawed even otherwise because it appears to apply to any service that works as well as a human being would and not just a calculator. For example, replace Google Maps with Google Translator, not the current version which will certainly not fool anyone, but a version in the future that really works very well. It could be version 100 or version 1000, it doesn’t really matter. Let’s say you interact with that future version in the same limited way – you type in a paragraph in one language and it prints back the perfect translation in the required language.  Now even the smart aleck will wonder if the translating agent is not just human but intelligent. What changed? Well, it’s a matter of gradation. We have always associated language and its infinite nuances with intelligence. This machine is not conversing, just translating, but still it’s not so easy to dismiss the case of the machine being intelligent anymore.

Coming back to Google Maps, what say you? Will it pass the imagined Turing Test? The irony here is that it will not only be able to answer most location and directions questions you can ever expect a human to answer, but will also have to be dumbed down in some way to represent an average human. After all, who among us remembers the shortest path from Fairbanks to Buenos Aires, something I bet many of us at one point or the other tried on Google Maps just to see what comes up. This dumbing down doesn’t seem too difficult really. Just program Google Maps to throw up its hands if the directions involve more than a handful of steps and say, “How’d I know that dude?”

All this suggests that restricted-Turing tests are a useful concept. Specifically, they can be very useful in gauging how close a product comes to what humans can provide using their putative intelligence. A calculator from even two decades ago would have passed a restricted-Turing test. Today’s Google Maps will also likely pass the test, even though the versions from a decade ago certainly would not have. And finally the current Google Translator would certainly fail the test.

So if you are a product manager out there, ask yourself this question: can my product pass the Turing Test? If your answer is yes, what can I say? May force be with you. If you think the answer is no, imagine a version that will pass the test and aim for that version. If you think the question is not even relevant, think how can you make it relevant since chances are that your product will become that much more interesting in the process.

Pricing – Don’t let perfect get in the way of better

Nothing can be simpler than a price. Be it that of Delicious Reds in the local supermarket, or Apple stock on NASDAQ, a price is a simple, solitary number. But there isn’t a thing in the world that doesn’t affect it. In the complex web of global economic relationships, a terrorism incident in Australia, a coup in Thailand, or the quality of mattress at Merkel’s choice of hotel during Greek negotiations can all affect AAPL, at least theoretically. A prolonged terrorism crisis can push the markets down dragging AAPL with it. The supply of key iPhone components from Thailand can become uncertain in the light of coup, raising concerns about Apple missing its revenue estimate. A smiling well-rested Merkel (imagine that!) may just send the global markets and AAPL soaring.

 

So how do you determine the right price? Well, as economists say, price is the point where supply equals the demand. That doesn’t simplify things a whole lot. In fact, now you don’t know two things – supply and demand – instead of just price. So what does the sleepy local supermarket manager with a pricing staple gun in his hands do in the mornings to the price of Delicious Reds, and how low does the family breadwinner looking to hasten retirement set as his limit for an AAPL buy transaction? Well, in that short moment, they either rise above their lowly Earthly station in life and try to be like all-knowing God, because no sub-Godly amount of omniscience will suffice to perfectly know the exact supply and demand for that product at that moment in heavenly time. Or, more likely, facing a task even Gods will shudder in the face of, they give up entirely and more or less maintain the status quo, moving current prices just a few cents here and there based on their gut.

 

Well, there’s a long distance between Godly omniscience and belief in your gut, and data science falls in that broad spectrum, probably still closer to your gut than God but let’s not allow perfect get in the way of better. So do check, if you sell real apples, wholesale price of apples in your area and cold storage inventory in your own store before you set that price gun, and if you want to buy Apple stock, change in AAPL futures, analyst estimates and recently company news before you set that limit. Definitely don’t mix-up the two. And if you are prone to sudden sleepiness when faced with more than ten numbers, for God’s sake hire a professional – be it a pricing analyst or a financial planner.