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17 May 2015

Alan Turing and the Dream of Artificial Intelligence

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Alan Turing (1912-1954) is considered one of the most outstanding scientists of the twentieth  century. He was a mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher and also a marathon and ultra-distance runner. He made ​​history by laying the theoretical foundations of computer science. Besides, during World War II, he played a key role in cracking ciphers so that the Allies could intercept Nazis’ coded messages. Nowadays a long list of merits are credited to him, but one of them is more arguable : Was it really Turing the father of artificial intelligence?One of the oldest dreams that have long been cherished by science is that of creating intelligent machines. In his Ars Magna (1315), Ramon Llull expressed the idea that reasoning could be artificially implemented in a machine. In an article published in 1936, Alan Turing introduced a theoretical contraption based on the principle that a machine can emulate any machine: that is the so-called “Turing machine.”

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Image: Alan Turing’s slate statue in Bletchley Park. Credit: Jon Call

If there is any hope of getting machines to be “intelligent” in the sense that their reasoning and the results provided are indistinguishable from those of humans, these will be some type of computer. And since computer operation is ultimately based on the Turing machine model, we can say that Turing certainly was a forefather of artificial intelligence.Later Alan Turing ventured to make a statement about when it could be argued that machines that actually thought had been built. In 1950 he published an article in the philosophy journal Mind, entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, in which he wrote:

“I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible to programme computers to make them play an imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 percent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, ‘Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.

Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated thinking will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”

More than sixty years after Turing wrote his article, machines that think like humans have not yet arrived, but he was cautious enough for us to accept that there are now machines that approach having intelligence to the extent he had suggested.

>> In his essay “The Past Is Prologue: The Future and the History of Science” José Manuel Sánchez Ron comes to this conclusion:

In my opinion, there is no doubt that, with their work and their predictions, von Neumann and particularly Turing and Wiener favoured not only the arrival of modern computers, but also the  establishment of “artificial intelligence” (a term coined in 1955 by John McCarthy) as a field of great interest. In this sense, they influenced the future.


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