News and Tribune


June 27, 2014

STAWAR: The worst conversation ever

— Most people believe that being able to conduct a conversation is a critical social skill. On June 7, a supercomputer program, named Eugene Goostman, convinced Royal Society judges that it was human by simulating human conversation.

Eugene passed the famous Turing Test. Created in 1950 by cryptographer and computer science pioneer, Alan Turing, this test was a challenge for future generations of artificial intelligence researchers. To pass the test, the program had to convince people that it was human 30 percent of the time. Many humans cannot even do this.

Eugene succeeded 33 percent of the time. Five programs were tested in London on the 60th anniversary of Turing’s death. Oddly enough, the winning entry simulated a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy.

Despite science having discovered the conversation algorithm, psychiatrist Fredric Neuman from White Plains, N.Y., says he still routinely sees patients who are bright and successful, but never-the-less “are afraid to talk with others because they think that what they say is boring ...”

He believes this is a result of low self-esteem learned from an early age. Neuman claims it’s pointless to try to talk someone out of feeling inadequate, but it is possible to teach them effective strategies for dealing with tasks, such as conducting a conversation.

Neuman refers to the 1960s program “ Eliza.” Back then, Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a natural language program called Eliza that simulated the speech of a Rogerian psychotherapist.

In Rogerian therapy, the therapist reflects or paraphrases things that the patients says. In keyboard conversations with “Eliza” some counseling patients thought the program was really a person. Many said that they liked her and complemented her insightfulness. “Eliza” would goof up at times and was not nearly sophisticated enough to pass the Turing Test, but the program identified an important strategy relevant to conversations: namely that people are most interested in hearing about themselves.

Neuman says it doesn’t take vast knowledge or a repertoire of jokes to carry on an interesting conversation. He suggests that you simply ask your acquaintances questions about themselves and their preferences. By relating the other person’s comments to something similar you’ve experienced, you create interest while ascertaining shared commonalties.

Long Island psychologist Linda Sapadin says that in a “great conversation,” “You learn something, you teach something, your knowledge increases” and “You relish the time spent together.” To create a “great conversation” Sapadin suggests: 1. Give the other person a chance to speak; 2. Refrain from pontificating; 3. Don’t multitask; 5. Avoid interrupting; and 5. Maintain respectful body language.

Last Saturday, I was involved in what I consider a truly “great conversation” with our youngest two grandchildren, ages 5 and 7. We were sitting at the breakfast table when our 7-year-old grandson started talking about “Dr. Who,” the campy BBC science fiction show.

Whenever this topic is raised, I’m always asked, who is my favorite doctor — a nice example of soliciting preferences. One of the features of this show is that the main character, “The Doctor,” periodically “regenerates” — allowing the producer to replace the lead actor.

The children favor the two most recent doctors, while my wife Diane and I are fans of the fourth Doctor, portrayed by Tom Baker in the 1970s. While we may disagree about the best Doctor, we all agree the worst Doctor was the first one, portrayed by aging actor William Hartnell in the 1960s. He clearly did not regenerate soon enough, and according to the children had a hair-cut that makes him look like George Washington.

We also discussed the relative merits of our favorite Doctors. The 11th Doctor did wear a spiffy red bowtie, but I argued that Tom Baker was best because of his long colorful scarf. At this point, our 5-year-old granddaughter announced that she was fed up with “The Doctor” and would henceforth pick our conversation topics.

First she chose, “What is the worst snake ever?” Our grandson argued convincingly for the king cobra, but we also considered the black Mamba, the coral snake, the python and the anaconda. The garter snake that I suggested was laughed off, since obviously only a fool would suggest this harmless creature was the worst snake ever.

There was some support for “that snake that squeezes you to death,” but none of us could remember its name, so in the end, the cobra won by acclamation.

This led us to the second topic: “What is the worst lake ever? It was first proposed that a lake full of man-eating sharks would be bad, but perhaps not as bad as a lake full of vicious crocodiles. At this point, sensitive readers must pardon us, as it was decided that as bad as those two possibilities were, both were surpassed by a lake filled with diarrhea — the worst lake indeed! I am afraid that once introduced, this notion influenced our last two topics.

As for the worst bird ever, it was a toss-up between an aggressive ostrich and the vulture. In the end, a vulture eating road kill covered with “you know what” eked out the win.

Finally we discussed “the worst cake ever”. Following a spirited debate, a tie ensued between pineapple upside-down cake and, of course, “ poop cake.”

I challenge even Eugene Goostman to top that conversation.

 — Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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