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