Turing's SatNav...Is it more intelligent than a chicken?

With the recent news of Bletchley Park securing Alan Turing’s papers, TNMOC volunteer Pete Chilvers recalls how he gave his new SatNav an unusual test, and wondered how intelligent it really was…

With meetings now taking place planning to celebrate Turing’s Centenary in 2012, and getting a new SatNav boasting Intelligent Routes (iQR), my mind wandered onto how it would fare in a Turing Test! That is: how does the SatNav compare to a navigator (mate / wife / self / chicken)?

And anyway, what is intelligence in the context of navigation?

Well, I’m reminded of someone’s observation of how to show that a dog is more intelligent than a chicken. I was told to imagine a 3-sided cage. Put the chicken ‘inside’ and its food outside: the chicken will go hungry as it tries and fails to break out. Do similar with a dog and it will, after a while, realise the futility of the direct route and go out the back and round.

On my way to TNMoC at Bletchley Park I naturally turn off the A5 Dual carriageway, going right, and South-ish, and on to the double roundabouts on the old A5 Watling Street. But trying out my new SatNav it sent me off to the left, North, and the wrong way. What?! But then at the next roundabout, sharp-right and on to that double roundabout, but without the 3 sets of traffic lights. Wow! Much faster, and now my regular route. One up for the SatNav – and more intelligent than a chicken?

Later I visited the Cold War exhibition at RAF Museum Cosford travelling to it via motorway. But a nice feature of the SatNav is to be able to ask for an alternative route, and this I requested for a pretty way back to the South. Travelling into a town I was told ‘Turn Right’ which I did obediently at the traffic lights, and a moment later ‘Turn Right’ (now going north!). Hmm! Perhaps OK, but a look on the map display showed I was about to ‘Turn Left’ and be taken round a green in the centre of a little estate and back out to the traffic lights where I would turn right to continue along the original road Southward! I found myself crossing a river bridge and on the other side I was again told to turn right. Ahh! The original instruction meant turn at the second set of lights south of the river. Oh Well! I reckon a person would have told me more clearly, but at least the SatNav found a safe way to turn round rather than a 3-point turn in the middle of a busy main road! Score here – One Each?

But the clincher came driving in a familiar area of a city with traffic getting congested, and personal knowledge of danger spots. As the SatNav gave instructions clearly taking me to suicidal right turns I repeatedly ignored its instructions. At each moment of disobedience it gave ‘Recalculating Route…’, impressively quickly, over and over to keep up. And then I realised – in spite of all this, it had failed the Turing Test! Unlike a human navigator getting exasperated at being ignored, it had just got on with it – no huffing; no puffing, no comment!

Pete Chilvers is a long standing volunteer at The National Museum of Computing and is often found wondering the corridors passing on his wealth of historical knowledge to visitors and other volunteers alike. He also gives guided tours of Bletchley Park. TNMOC is open Thursdays and Saturdays and most Bank Holidays; Guided tours are available on other days subject to availability. We are also now offering Company Away Days.

Bootnote: Technology does not always work in your favour… The museums postcode actually takes you to an old Bletchley Park entrance which is closed. To find the new entrance you should use the postcode for the local railway station MK3 6DS.