Time to think afresh about being human

In 1950, the computer pioneer and code-breaker Alan Turing set his famous ‘Turing Test’, laying down a test whereby we could decide one way or another if a computer could think.  It was a high bar but the test remains as controversial today as it was then.

I’ve written about this, and told the story – not just of the Turing Test but of Turing’s involvement in cracking the Enigma code – in my new ebook Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma, just published as a Kindle Single. 

I hope the book will not just give people the narrative but help spur a little more debate into the nature of being human.  Because the Turing Test still divides us.  On the one hand, there are true believers like Ray Kurzweil, the author of The Age of Spiritual Machines. 

On the other hand, there are critics like Jaron Lanier, the pioneer of virtual reality.  “Turing assumed that the computer in this case [having passed the Test] has become smarter or more humanlike,” he told the New York Times. “But the equally likely conclusion is that the person has become dumber and more computerlike.”

The British critic Bryan Appleyard wrote a similar critique of the ideology in his book The Brain is Wider Than the Sky, where he says that the arguments for replacing human functions with IT are often based on narrow assumptions of what can be achieved by human intelligence and intuition.

But the victory of IBM’s Big Blue computer over chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 does imply that a shift has happened.

Both human genetics and AI try to reduce human life in some way to numbers, and both are stuck and may in fact be looking in the wrong direction.  But it is absolutely clear that computers have long since surpassed human computation abilities; there are some things that computers will do far better than humans.

The Turing Test never claimed to be able to verify anything metaphysical, but that is where the debate is going.  It is a debate about authenticity, which asserts or denies that there are attributes which are uniquely human, not so much conventional intelligence, but love, care and generosity.  Turing believed that intuition was computable.  Even if a computer passes his test, we won’t know if he was right or not.

Turing was wrong about his predictions: he expected his test to have been passed by now.

But we are now in thrall to computers in ways that might have surprised him: in practice, the closer to human intelligence the robot who phones us up can be, the more unnerving the experience – and, for the time being, the more frustrating, because of the inability of IT to deal with human complexity in the ways that Turing predicted.

If the corporate world wants to replace teachers and doctors with screens and software, because it is cheaper, it is not always obvious which side Turing – a great humanist – would have been on.

In other words, whatever side you are on, there are reasons to be on Turing’s side.  But read the book and see what side is winning.

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