Alan Turing and “imitation”

Here are a few thoughts (and a “nugget”) from Alan Turing’s article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” a short piece I am reading for the New Media Seminar at VT.

I found Turing’s writing captivating. While there has been a recent surge in Turing stories and adoration (with many thanks to the widely acclaimed, Imitation Game) his words still seem new and cutting edge. Particularly striking was the absence of binary’s or difference– rhetorically he merged biological and organic metaphors (I am thinking of the onion) alongside discussions of computing and calculating. Personally, that is very difficult to do, even in our technologically adept age. Evolution, behavior, and childlike behavior were all interesting used to explain computers and their possibilities. Throughout the reading and in situations afterward, I kept returning to the emphasis placed on the concept of “think” and “machine.” I thought specially of the ways in which machines computers are openly accepted into human bodies for the purpose of surviving, for instance, cardiac pacemakers. These machines function within the human body  but do not “think” rather, I believe it could be said they mimic or imitate.

I also thought of the messiness of thinking– the brainstorming and mistakes, trashcans full of wadded up papers and empty white out canisters. What does the possibility of thinking machines propose for the messy, dirty, incorrect moments of thinking which lead to new ideas? Are we creating machines to produce? On that note, in what ways do we conflate produce with think and how is this embodied and accepted in different ways in different bodily shells (human vs. machine?)?  This line of thought came after reading both the Lady Lovelace Objection which states, “[T]he Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform” (59).

Alongside (or perhaps in contestation to) the Lady Lovelace objection is a statement by Turing on the “Learning Machine.” He writes,

“[A]n important feature of a learning machine is that its teacher will often be very largely ignorant of quite what is going on inside, although he may still be able to some extent to predict his pupil’s behavior” (63).

Turing continues to describe the struggle of learning. I found this discussion very useful for a few reasons: one, Turing recognizes the unique struggle that is behind (often invisible) in the learning process and two, he acknowledges the need for that in machines. So, if machines were used to create and encourage and compel such struggles, that would (perhaps) encourage new types of human interaction and learning– which I believe is an underlying reason for our interest in machines and technology in education.

[Off the top of my head I am thinking of note taking apps which turn class notes into mind maps… this of course is not a “thinking machine” but a function of a machine which helps humans think.]

So many wonderful things to think about.


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