Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma


Alan Turing (1912-54) was a British mathematician who made history. His breaking of the German U-boat Enigma cipher in World War II ensured Allied-American control of the Atlantic. But Turing's vision went far beyond the desperate wartime struggle. Already in the 1930s he had defined the concept of the universal machine, which underpins the computer revolution. In 1945 he was a pioneer of electronic computer design. But Turing's true goal was the scientific understanding of the mind, brought out in the drama and wit of the famous "Turing test" for machine intelligence and in his prophecy for the twenty-first century. nbsp; Drawn in to the cockpit of world events and the forefront of technological innovation, Alan Turing was also an innocent and unpretentious gay man trying to live in a society that criminalized him. In 1952 he revealed his homosexuality and was forced to participate in a humiliating treatment program, and was ever after regarded as a security risk. His suicide in 1954 remains one of the many enigmas in an astonishing life story.


Is a mind a complicated kind of abstract pattern that develops in an underlying physical substrate, such as a vast network of nerve cells? If so, could something else be substituted for the nerve cells -- something such as ants, giving rise to an ant colony that thinks as a whole and has an identity- that is to say, a self? Or could something else be substituted for the tiny nerve cells, such as millions of small computational units made of arrays of transistors, giving rise to an artificial neural network with a conscious mind? Or could software simulating such richly interconnected computational units be substituted, giving rise to a conventional computer (necessarily a far faster and more capacious one than we have ever seen) endowed with a mind and a soul and free will? In short, can thinking and feeling emerge from patterns of activity in different sorts of substrateorganic, electronic, or otherwise?

Could a machine communicate with humans on an unlimited set of topics through fluent use of a human language? Could a language-using machine give the appearance of understanding sentences and coming up with ideas while in truth being as devoid of thought and as empty inside as a nineteenth-century adding machine or a twentieth-century word processor? How might we distinguish between a genuinely conscious and intelligent mind and a cleverly constructed but hollow language-using facade? Are understanding and reasoning incompatible with a materialistic, mechanistic view of living beings?

Could a machine ever be said to have made its own decisions? Could a machine have beliefs? Could a machine make mistakes? Could a machine believe it made its own decisions? Could a machine erroneously attribute free will to itself? Could a machine come up with ideas that had not been programmed into it in advance? Could creativity emerge from a set of fixed rules? Are we -- even the most creative among us -- but passive slaves to the laws of physics that govern our neurons?

Could machines have emotions? Do our emotions and our intellects belong to separate compartments of our selves? Could machines be enchanted by ideas, by people, by other machines? Could machines be attracted to each other, fall in love? What would be the social norms for machines in love? Would there be proper and improper types of machine love affairs?

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