Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Alan Turing's brilliant essay

In 1950, Alan Turing wrote "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." This one short paper, exploring what came to be called the Turing test, continues to influence research and thinking across multiple fields.

Tyler Cowen and I have co-authored a new paper asking two questions. What does the Turing test really mean? And how many human beings (including Turing) could pass? Our premise is that some aspects of Turing's paper have not received sufficient attention:

Turing’s paper is rich and multi-faceted and we are not seeking to overturn all of the extant interpretations. We do wish to suggest that a potent and indeed subversive perspective in the paper has been underemphasized. Some of the message of Turing’s paper is encouraging us to take a broader perspective on intelligence and some of his points are ethical in nature. Turing’s paper is about the possibility of unusual forms of intelligence, our inability to recognize those intelligences, and the limitations of indistinguishability as a standard for defining intelligence. “Inability to imitate does not rule out intelligence” is an alternative way of reading many parts of his argument. Turing was issuing the warning that we should not dismiss or persecute entities which we cannot easily categorize or understand.
The facts of Turing's life enter into our argument, as does autism in many respects. Here is what we conclude:

It is possible that Turing conceived of his imitation test precisely because he had so much difficulty “passing” and communicating himself. In social settings these facts were seen as disabilities but in the longer term they helped Turing produce this brilliant essay.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University. His page is here. He blogs at Marginal Revolution; his post about our paper is here.