Alan Turing was a brilliant British mathematician who was pivotal in cracking the German Enigma cipher using a complex computing machine. He was highly influential in the founding of computing science. One of his greatest areas of interest was artificial intelligence. Like other computer scientists of the time, Turing predicted that machine intelligence was possible in the future with rapid development of computers. On this topic, he proposed the following question: at what point is a machine truly “intelligent”?
Intelligence is too complicated to define neatly in a single line. Therefore, here is a simpler question: can a machine do what we can do? For this, he proposed a thought experiment based on a party game known as the imitation game. In the imitation game, a man and a woman go into separate rooms. Guests then try to tell who is a man and who is a woman by writing a series of questions, slipping it under the door, then receiving a typewritten answer. If the guests cannot tell the two apart, the two win the game.
Turing modified this game into what is now known as the Turing test. He proposed replacing one person with a machine. A person and a computer are placed in separate rooms and are asked the same question by a judge. They then give a typed response. If the judge cannot confidently tell who is human and who is not, then the machine passes the Turing test.
Of course, the Turing test was not designed as a formal assessment and is merely a thought experiment. It has plenty of weaknesses, such as the fact that it only tests whether the machine is acting “like a human” rather than “intelligently”. For example, some computers have passed the Turing test by intentionally making typos to mimic human behaviour. Some have argued that machines that pass the Turing test do not truly exhibit intelligence, as it is impossible to tell if they fully understand the language or whether they are just running algorithms on symbols that the machine does not understand.
Regardless, the Turing test opens the door on the exciting yet frightening world of artificial intelligence and what the future holds for humanity.
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