Saturday, July 16, 2016

Our Imitation Game

Recently, I rewatched The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch, about scientist Alan Turing and his work during World War II to break the coding of the Nazis' Enigma machine. Although having read numerous books on the subject, watched a variety of films and television shows depicting the story, as well as a handful of documentaries on this topic, over the years, I realized I had never actually read Alan Turing's paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", in which his Imitation Game is presented amid the topic and debate of eventual digital computer technology and the advancement towards artificial intelligence. 

It surprised me to realize this, as I tend to be someone who initially seeks out the source material well before adsorbing the material which it inspires. But, I rationalized that I had merely circumnavigated my way around this particular source information due to a personal aversion to math. However, I decided it was high time I at least attempted to read this Turing Test paper.

I can honestly say only a handful of things I have ever read shocked, delighted, and inspired me to thought as much as "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" did.

Years after helping break the Enigma codes, Alan Turing wrote this paper, at the height of his career, when he was thirty-eight years old.

And, far from being an inconceivable, convoluted scientific text, only someone with an advanced doctorate could comprehend, it is a concise, provoking, witty, open-minded, often humorous, philosophical and clinical debate, mixed with personal ideology, on what constitutes thought, humanity, intellect, consciousness, extrasensory perception, Man, God, and machines. 

Scientifically, the paper's ideas are still debated today, proving to have been both highly influential and widely-criticized. But, for me, beyond the science, there is a genuine and powerful humanity to Turing's thought process.

Uncomplicated and simple in its presentation, the paper is frighteningly insightful in its forethought and computer advancement predictions, with an underlying depth in applying what are basic human beliefs and assumptions to the complexity of the idea of computers and the eventuality of artificial intelligence. It's revolutionary in its basic philosophy and rather mind-blowing to discover its relevance almost seventy-years later.

All one would have to do is pick up a paper or turn on a news channel these days to be struck by the increasing levels of violence, terrorism, intolerance, and hatred becoming commonplace in our world. Within that truth and current mindset, my thoughts have been drawn again and again to a particular passage in Turing's paper:

" 'The consequences of machines thinking would be too dreadful. Let us hope and believe that they cannot do so.'
This argument is seldom expressed quite so openly as in the form above. But it affects most of us who think about it at all. We like to believe that Man is in some subtle way superior to the rest of creation. It is best if he can be shown to be necessarily superior, for then there is no danger of him losing his commanding position. The popularity of the theological argument is clearly connected with this feeling. It is likely to be quite strong in intellectual people, since they value the power of thinking more highly than others, and are more inclined to base their belief in the superiority of Man on this power.  

I do not think that this argument is sufficiently substantial to require refutation. Consolation would be more appropriate: perhaps this should be sought in the transmigration of souls." 

Turing was plainly dismissing Man's idea of supremacy in the context of facing artificial intelligence, through his "Head in the Sand" argument. He also speaks in his paper about solipsism, the view that the self is all that can be known to exist. 

But, the same theory applied to our current humanity's behavior is equally relevant. 

We are killing other people because we believe our rights to be more important than someone else's rights. 
We are bombing other people because we believe our God to be more valid than someone else's God. 
We are shooting other people because we believe our sexual orientation to be more normal than someone else's sexual orientation. 
We are electing and empowering fear-mongering people because we believe our fear to be more righteous then someone else's fear. 
We are raining war down on other people with our hate because we believe ourselves to be more important than someone else.

The basic premise of Turning's paper is the contemplation of the question, "Can machines think?" and justifying his arguments about how to better answer and test the underlying theory of that question. 

But, maybe for us, in our current climate, the larger contemplation should extend to "Has Man forgotten how to think?" 

Alan Turing wrote a paper about a digital world of intelligence that was only beginning to be imagined. He would die four years after its completion, before seeing the actual scope, of that computer intelligence, grow in leaps and bounds. But, he had the foresight to know this and concluded his theory with this simple statement:

"We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done."

Those words are profound in their simplicity and relevant beyond his theory's intent.

As the survivors we all are and are attempting to continue to be, we need to stop fearing the danger of losing our commanding positions, overwhelmingly accept the rights of other people's positions, and individually learn to embrace that there is room for all of us. Room on this Earth for all of us to struggle, to share, to love, to contemplate, to theorize, and to believe without seeking to destroy another's belief.

We have take the time to stop and look. If we do make the conscience choice to see with better eyes, we all have the potential to see clearly that there is plenty there that needs to be done.


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