Alan M. Turing (1912-1952)
Can machines think?
Alan Turing –mathematician,
cryptographer, philosopher, master of logic– is considered the father of
artificial intelligence (the simulation of human intelligence in machines) and
the theory of computer science (the theoretical foundations of computer
science). The previous titles are common knowledge about this man. For the ideas the
mathematician conceived for the construction of machines capable of learning,
his name could also be added to the list of the pioneers of evolutionary neuroscience
(the study of the evolution of nervous systems).
Turing wrote: "We
normally associate punishments and rewards with the teaching process. Some
simple child machines can be constructed or programmed on this sort of
principle. The machine has to be so constructed that events which shortly
preceded the occurrence of a punishment signal are unlikely to be repeated,
whereas a reward signal increased the probability of repetition of the events
which led up to it." According to neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin, these
ideas "foreshadowed our modern understanding of how neurons learn and
adapt through synaptic plasiticity".
"Some simple child
machines can be constructed or programmed on this sort of principle," said
Turing in "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", an important and short
paper written in 1950, which has been instrumental in the development of
artificial intelligence. This 'simplicity' should be 'easy' only for visionary
geniuses like him.
In his renowned paper the
author discusses the question "Can machines think?" that, over time,
would become a permanent topic of discussion among scientists and philosophers.
As a master of logic, Turing considered imprecise the way to raise this issue
because the verb 'think' and the noun 'machine' are words with multiple and
As an alternative to the
abstract question, Turing developed "The Imitation Game" (also the
title of a successful movie). “The Imitation Game" became over time in the
famous 'Turing test'. In this test, if an interrogator, after making numerous
questions to a computer A and a person B, without seeing or knowing which is
which, fails to identify who is A and who is B, A must be a machine that thinks.
When this happens, the computer wins; otherwise, the inquirer prevails.
Alan Turing predicted that
"in about fifty years’ time (that is year 2000) there will be computers
playing the game so well that that seven of every ten interrogators will fail
to make the right identification of players after five minutes of questioning ". Will
the time come when machines consistently defeat ninety–nine percent of
Not yet. In 2011 Watson, an
artificial intelligence system developed by IBM with capacity to answer
questionnaires posed in natural language, defeated in ' Jeopardy!', a famous
contest of questions and answers on American television, the star contestants
of that moment. However, there was at least one question that Watson answered so
wrongly that any smart interrogator would have detected that the entity
responding was a 'uncoordinated' device, not a 'reasonable' person.
The transition from thought
to consciousness makes the issue of 'whether machines think' even more
complicated. " Not until a machine can
write a sonnet, because of thoughts and emotions felt, could we agree that
machine equals brain", said in 1949 Geoffrey Jefferson, a British
neurologist, representative of a philosophical current known with the rare
designation of solipsism, which rejects any possibility of thinking machines.
Without ignoring the mystery
of consciousness, Alan Turing argued that it is not necessary to resolve it to
evaluate the capacity of reasoning in computers. “According to the most extreme
followers of solipsism, the only way by which one could be sure that a machine
thinks is to be that machine,” noted the philosopher.
Perhaps hardware and
software designers will never build robots that write sonnets and are aware
that they have done so. There is no doubt, however, that at some point, sooner rather
than later, there will be machines that will consistently pass, almost one
hundred percent of the times, the famous test that bears the name of the hero of
this note. Will such equipment have consciousness? That is a good question to pose
to intelligent computers.
Atlanta, January 30, 2015