Reading for Monday: Turing/Bush

Turing’s “Computing, Machinery and Intelligence” is a fascinating piece to consider when discussing the potential power of machines and what that means to us and our humanity. I’d like to extend his idea by introducing John Searle’s counter argument, as presented in a 1980 paper entitled, “Mind, Brains, and Programs.” Almost sixty years since Turing published his work, I think it’s harder to argue that a machine couldn’t be developed to convincingly pass Turing’s test–if one hasn’t already been developed. Searle introduces a counter point, the Chinese Room argument, and suggests that a machine could pass Turing’s “imitation game” without understanding what it’s doing nor helping to explain the way humans think. His example involves a English speaker in a room with a set of Chinese inputs and outputs and a set of rules to answer any potential question posed to them. With enough practice and a complete enough set of rules, it seems as if this machine (the person, rules and symbols) could answer any question in Chinese–and pass Turing’s test–without the person inside having any understanding of Chinese. If such were the case, what truly comprises thought and thinking? In these examples, I think you can go back and forth and what constitutes “thinking” and a “machine” forever, but to me I think you’re going to reach a point where the line is significantly blurred. I see no reason why–with enough time, technological advances, and understanding of ourselves–a machine couldn’t be developed to think and to understand what it’s thinking. For one thing, I’d say you certainly can’t rule anything out until, at least right now with what we know.

Bush’s piece read oddly familiar today, in the age of computing. He obviously wasn’t using many of the terms–“internet,” “computer,” and such–because they hadn’t been made up yet, but the detail with which he is able to talk about some of these future technologies is pretty incredible. On one hand, I’m not extremely surprised–I’ve read enough science fiction to have encountered similar speculation to this–but the detail with which he wrote nonetheless stood out pretty strongly. The aspect I found most interesting about his article, though, was the setting and inspiration with which he wrote it. The article is dated July 1945 and thus was published in the close months of World War 2. I really liked his suggestion that we undergo a shift and direct the powers of our intellect away from building physical objects that give us power and instead focus on more abstract, mental processes. In many ways, that shift certainly has happened today. But what implications has it had on, say, the financial markets, where it seems we’re making money from money and not really producing anything physical. What can we take from this driver of Bush’s, when you consider the fact that we’re currently at war, but that we’ve just undergone a shift in presidents?

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