How To Use The Turing Test To Improve IT

Pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing is likely to be even better known after the release of the Benedict Cumberbatch film The Imitation Game this year. His approach can also be useful when you're trying to plan new IT deployments.

That suggestion was made by John Sheridan, chief technology officer at the Department of Finance, during the opening presentation at the GovInnovate 2014 conference in Canberra. Sheridan is frequently a source of piquant advice when it comes to IT rollouts, and the use of the "Turing Test" to help assess future IT projects is an interesting concept.

As anyone with a passing interest in artificial intelligence (AI) knows, the Turing Test is a widely-discussed concept designed to help identify what AI actually is. As Sheridan explained: "The Turing Test is the test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour to the extent that it's indistinguishable from a human being."

In other words, if you can't tell whether responses being displayed on a screen are from an actual human or from a machine, then that system can be said to have artificial intelligence. But making that determination can be harder than you think.

So too, it proves, with cloud computing. "This is an interesting test in the context of cloud," Sheridan pointed out. The Department of Finance uses the widely-accepted US government NIST definition for cloud computing services, which can be briefly summarised thus:

Cloud computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. This cloud model promotes availability and is composed of five essential characteristics (On-demand self-service, Broad network access, Resource pooling, Rapid elasticity, Measured Service)

Sheridan points out that these characteristics are also common to more traditional managed services offerings. So is it reasonable to count those as cloud services as well? "Many of those are things you would expect to find in a good managed service," Sheridan said. "Government policy requires us to use cloud computing when it is fit for purpose, provides value for money and has the right level of security."

While that cloud-first policy isn't without its challenges, it is being heavily backed by government, as Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was keen to promote this week. "If we're going to follow government policy, we're going to have to examine and check services to see if they fit the cloud definition. We need some sort of Turing Test to tell us."

The immediate challenge for government departments is waiting for the official rollout of the Cloud Services Panel, which will identify pre-approved services that meet core requirements and thus can be purchased without requiring separate accreditation each time. More than 110 companies have responded to the RFT for the panel. "All of these companies had to describe their services," Sheridan said. "It's going to be a challenge for us to differentiate those things carefully."

Even if you're not working in government, it's a useful approach to adopt. The primary goal for any tech deployment is to provide useful services at minimal cost: if that can be achieved with shared services, why quibble just because it doesn't have "cloud" stamped all over it?

Successful shared services offered by government that are cloud-like in nature if not in name include AusTender, which is used for all government tenders, and the Australian Public Service (APS) Jobs career portal, which similarly covers all departments. "We're working towards a similar thing in the parliamentary workflow system," Sheridan said.

A more advanced example is the govCMS project, which provides a Drupal-based system, hosted in Amazon's Sydney data centre, which any department can use for hosting on a standardised platform. It is already being used for the australia.gov.au site, will be rolled out on finance.gov.au this month and made generally available to all departments in February 2015. "Why has this been successful?" Sheridan said. "Because it offers the sorts of things agencies want. For a very small cost, we can provide agencies with a quick and useful service that they can get things done on." That outcome matters a lot more than the labels.

Even with both shared services and cloud offerings in play, Sheridan says it pays to be cautious: "Is this combination the way to Utopia? I don't think that's entirely true, though there are obviously enormous benefits."

For even more Turing-like approaches to life, check out our guide to Alan Turing's best productivity tricks.

Evolve is a regular column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.


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