Link to Paper

This paper laid foundations of the highly influential Turing test by exploring the question “Can machines think?”. To answer this question unambiguously, it is replaced by yet another question, “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game”?

The proposed imitation game has 3 subjects - A and B being a machine and a human, and C being the interrogator who is tasked to make the correct identification. This has to be done without sight, touch, voice, or any demands of practical demonstration. It is argued that this test shouldn’t be critiqued as the odds are heavily against the machine.

The paper discusses the meaning of the words ‘machine’ and ‘think’, followed by the remainder of the paper refuting and arguing against plausible objections that can be made to both the question and the proposition. These objections vary widely from theological to mathematical views. Few riveting defenses from the various contrary views dealt with -

  • The argument from consciousness is tackled by explaining how to be sure if a machine thinks is to be the machine and feel oneself thinking in it. Hence, what a man feels/thinks cannot be justified by any notice and similar is the case of a machine. Lady Lovelace’s objection implying that a machine can never do anything really new is argued by saying that there is no original work, but simply understanding what it is by virtue of growth through teaching.

  • It is interesting how a digital computer is explained to be a ‘human computer’. In the extrasensory perception argument, the clause of using telepathy-proof rooms are added, if it is ever to be possible!

  • The skin of the onion analogy describes how the whole human mind might just be mechanical, where the “real” mind does not exist and might merely be just another skin/layer.

It’s nice to see how the idea of discrete-state machines is connected to both neurology and Laplace’s view of the universe as a whole. In trying to build a thinking machine and taking ideas from a human mind to do so, it is also explored how this can be done using the initial state of a child, and applying education and experiences to make it an adult one. Hence, instead of trying to stimulate an adult’s mind, why not replace it with a child’s? Other parameters of evolution like heredity and mutation are also considered.

I appreciate how the paper was so ahead of its time. It makes me appreciate the brilliant people that laid the foundations of computing and intelligence even more. It is also noteworthy that importance is given to the fact that the main question is set to be asked for an imaginable computer that would do well in the test in the future, both while designing the test and during the discussion.

This paper is a very different read than the usual academic papers. Through the paper, it can also be seen how socially aware Alan Turing was as a human. The paper shows his views on sexuality, religion, god, and human supremacy. Few quotes from the paper that made me smirk/applaud -

  • “The game may perhaps be criticized on the ground that the odds are weighted too heavily against the machine. If the man were to try and pretend to be the machine he would clearly make a very poor showing. He would be given away at once by slowness and inaccuracy in arithmetic. “

  • The “Heads in the Sand” objection - “The consequences of machines thinking would be too dreadful. Let us hope and believe that they cannot do so.”, is responded by - “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. “

  • “Those who believe in the two previous objections would probably not be interested in any criteria”. The two previous objections being referred to here are theological and “hands in the sand”.

  • “The rules are thus quite time-invariant. This is quite true. The explanation of the paradox is that the rules which get changed in the learning process are of a rather less pretentious kind, claiming only an ephemeral validity. The reader may draw a parallel with the Constitution of the United States.”