Can Machines Think?

Turings CathedralThat’s a pretty big question and it’s been kicking around since the middle of the last century. The answer, of course, depends on how you define thinking and machines, and whom you ask.

Professor Kevin Warwick, a visiting professor at the University of Reading and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at Coventry University thinks the answer is yes. At least that was his conclusion when “Eugene Goostman,” one of five computer programs, won the Turing Test 2014 Prize at an event held at the Royal Society in London in June.

Described as a Ukrainian teenager with a quirky sense of humor and a pet guinea pig, Eugene managed to convince 33 percent of the Turing test judges that it was human. Organized by University of Reading’s School of Systems Engineering, the event was sponsored in part by RoboLaw, an EU-funded organization that is examining the regulation of emerging robotic technologies.

But the news that Eugene passed the Turing test quickly sparked a debate.

The Guardian reported that Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal, said that whatever had happened at the Royal Society, it did not amount to passing the Turing test. “It’s nonsense, complete nonsense,” he said. “We have not passed the Turing test. We are not even close.”

The Turing Test Doesn’t Matter

Then there is Massimo Pigliucci, editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, who isn’t even arguing about the test results, because he says that The Turing Test Doesn’t Matter.

Turing proposed his famous test back in 1951, calling it “the imitation game.” The idea stemmed out of his famous work on what is now known as the Church-Turing hypothesis, the idea that “computers” (very broadly defined) can carry out any task that can be encoded by an algorithm. Turing was interested in the question of whether machines can think, and he was likely influenced by the then cutting edge research approach in psychology, behaviorism, whose rejection of the idea of internal mental states as either fictional or not accessible scientifically led psychologists for a while to study human behavior from a strictly externalist standpoint.

— Massimo Pigliucci

Pigliucci asks: “When we talk about AI, do we mean intelligence (as the “I” deceptively seems to stand for), computation, self-awareness, all of the above? Without first agreeing at the least on what it is we are trying to do we cannot possibly even conceive of a test to see whether we’ve gotten there.”

He’s got a point.

Turing’s Cathedral

All of this leads us back to the man, Alan Turing, who in 1950 predicted that some time in the next 50 years we would have computers that could trick us into believing they were human at least 30 percent of the time. He introduced us to the Turing test in his seminal work on artificial intelligence, Computing and Machinery and Intelligence.

As a British mathematician and cryptographer, and one of the most influential computer scientists of the last century, Turing is still best known for the Turing test—the famous question and answer game that seeks to answer the question Can Machines Think? His remarkable story is the subject of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson.

And the question of whether machines can think? Remains questionable. But it sure makes for fascinating reading.

— DJ

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The I Ching, Supercomputers, and C. G. Jung

The I Ching: Then and Now

The I Ching has survived many interpretations and centuries of scholarly debate. Originally written as a book of “oracles,” there was a kind of magic associated with its use for purposes of divination.

In the introduction to his classic translation from 1924, Richard Wilhelm describes how difficult it was to extricate the text from the realm of the supernatural. He says once the Book of Changes became established as a book of divination and magic in the time of Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the entire school of magicians (fang shih) of the Ch’in and Han dynasties made it their prey. It was not until Wang Pi [A.D. 226-249] wrote about the meaning of the Book of Changes as a book of wisdom, not as a book of divination, that the yin-yang school of magic was displaced.

Writers continue to be intrigued by the I Ching. Damien Walters just wrote an interesting article in The Guardian that makes the case that the I Ching can be tied to the binary code used by supercomputers today. In that piece he explains how Gottfried Wilhem von Liebniz, a philosopher and mathematician from the 1600s, found inspiration for “a new, purer arithmetic than our common decimal system” by reading the I Ching.

Walters claims that Liebniz’s new binary arithmetic was inspired by the binary poles of reality represented as Yin and Yang. He says the ancient text had such an influence on Liebniz, that he wrote an article about the new arithmetic with the title, “Explanation of the binary which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi“.

According to Walters, in the philosophy of the I Ching, reality is not entirely real. It is something more like a dream or an illusion. “This dream of reality arises from the binaries of Yin and Yang, as they play out their infinite combinations. It’s not surprising then, from the I Ching’s perspective, that anything in the dream of reality can be represented as a model of its binary constituents, in a string of 1s and 0s, processed by a computer.”

In closing, Walters asks, “When scientific thinkers ask whether computers can create ‘virtual realities’ or ‘artificial intelligence,’ they are missing the point. Of course we can create ever deeper and more complex layers of the dream of reality to get lost in. The real question is, can we wake up from the dream we’re in already?”

C. G. Jung

I prefer the analysis that C. G. Jung provided in the 1949 forward to the Whilhem/Baynes translation of the I Ching. He explained that the way that the I Ching looks upon reality seems to disfavor our Western “causalistic procedures.” Because when we focus our attention on a moment in time, our observations seem to be more about chance, than about a clearly defined result of concurring causal processes.

Jung said that the while the Western mind carefully sifts, weighs, selects, classifies, and isolates, the Chinese picture of the moment encompasses everything down to the minutest nonsensical detail, because all of the ingredients make up the observed moment.

“So when we throw the three coins, or count the 49 yarrow stalks, these chance details enter into the picture of the moment of observation and form a part of it—a part that is insignificant to us, yet most meaningful to the Chinese mind,” said Jung.

Jung also said that the I Ching is not easy to approach: “Like a part of nature, it waits to be discovered. If offers neither facts nor power, but for lovers of self-knowledge, of wisdom—if there be such—it seems to be the right book. To one person, its spirit appears as clear as the day; to another, shadowy as twilight; to a third, dark as night. He who is not pleased by it does not have to use it, and he who is against it is not obliged to find it true. Let it go forth into the world for the benefit of those who can discern its meaning.”

Wilhelm’s remarkable life is chronicled in a new documentary film, Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm & The I Ching. Written and directed by Bettina Wilhelm (his granddaughter), it was screened at a March 2014 conference held at the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco.

— DJ