Last night I dreamt of electric sheep

“in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it”Robert MacKenzie Beverley

Can machines think? 72 years have passed since Alan Turing asked that question:

I PROPOSE to consider the question, ‘Can machines think? ‘ This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think ‘ (A.M. Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence“)

Today computers can beat humans at solving certain problems that we would have considered to require intelligence 72 years ago. Chess is a case in point. Researchers in computer science have famously referred to chess as the ‘drosophila’ of artificial intelligence, and Turing himself used it when he first imagined his imitation game:

Q : Do you play chess?
A : Yes.
Q : I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
A : (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.

Since chess programs can defeat even the strongest human chess players, playing chess is not considered proper “thinking” anymore. When we have looked at the mystery behind chess through the magnifying glasses of computer science, what we have found is nothing resembling genuine intelligence. Intelligence had vanished into thin air. There was only brute force: computing speed.

The Pre-Turing world was one in which computers were people, who had to understand mathematics in order to do their jobs. Turing realized that this was just not necessary: you could take the tasks they performed and squeeze out the last tiny smidgens of understanding, leaving nothing but brute, mechanical actions. (Daniel C. Dennett, “A perfect and beautiful machine”)

And it is not only games like chess or checkers. Today, we use many clever gadgets, and we do not consider they add up to a “thinking machine”:

Fifty years later, problem-solving machines are a familiar presence in daily life. Computer programs suggest the best route through cross-town traffic, recommend movies you might like to see, recognize faces in photographs, transcribe your voicemail messages and translate documents from one language to another. As for checkers and chess, computers are not merely good players; they are unbeatable. Even on the television quiz show Jeopardy, the best human contestants were trounced by a computer (Brian Hayes, “The Manifest Destiny of Artificial Intelligence”)

The domain of thought is thus receding. We are making thought recede deliberately in order to preserve it as something intrinsically human, non-reproducible, unique. Thinking seems one of the last refuges of human singularity. It must be preserved no matter what, so that we are confining it to a sort of tribal reservation. Yet thinking may be overrated after all, as we can see if we turn our view toward the other term in the Turing question: the machines concerned in the game.

May be we are machines after all, aren’t we? If we accepted that we are machines, the answer to Turing’s question would boil down to a plain yes: machines can think because we can and that’s it. Only there might be other machines running different thinking programs, may be faster than ours. They might be coming. Can you accept that?


Featured Image: Detail of the Cover of Philip Dick’s novel “Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep”; Print Edition by Gollancz, 1999. See other covers here


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