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Can Computers Think?

Whether computers can think or not has been a question many people have asked for many years. Another related question is: if they can’t think now will they ever be able to, or is thinking an attribute that only living things can have? And then there’s the question of whether non-human animals can think and at what level of nervous system complexity does thinking start.

Clearly this is another one of the nuanced questions I have been asking recently. Questions with a yes or no answer are just so boring, I think!

Of course if you follow the tech and science news you will know why I am asking this question at this time. It is because a computer has passed the famous “Turing Test” for the first time. The test is named after the brilliant early computer scientists, Alan Turing, who proposed it in a paper in 1950.

The test involves a person conversing – using a screen and keyboard – with two entities: one is a human and the other is a computer. After 5 minutes the person must decide which is the human. If the person guesses the computer is the human at least 30% of the time (chance would give 50%) the computer is said to be thinking.

There have been many attempts in the past but in the end the computer has always given itself away by doing something that no normal human would do, such as responding with a totally irrelevant comment, or re-asking a question it just used, or mis-understanding the syntax or semantics of the human comment.

But this time the computer was better than that. The experiment was done as the Royal Society and used experienced judges, so it has some credibility. On the other hand the computer was pretending to be a 13 year old Ukrainian boy and I would have to wonder whether simulating a middle aged English professor might have been more of a challenge.

But even if the computer could do that I still don’t think most people would think it was really thinking, because, with all due respect to Turing, I really don’t think this is a good test of thinking. I would suggest a general purpose intelligence test, which involves solving problems the computer wasn’t prepared for, would be a better choice. As far as I know no one has attempted this type of test yet.

So if computers can’t really think yet, will they be able to in the future? It’s hard to see how the answer could be anything except “yes” because, unless you are dualist (in the philosophy of mind sense), there is no inherent difference between an information processing system made of brain cells and one made of transistors (or whatever might replace those in a quantum or other future computer technology).

Current computers are designed to perform simple operations very accurately and very quickly. For what they do they out-perform any brain by a factor of a trillion. In fact one decent computer – when doing the sort of calculation it is good at – could probably out-perform every brain on Earth combined in terms of speed, plus guarantee to get the right answer.

But it’s still not thinking.

Some researchers are working on different ways to make computers work, concentrating more on making them brain-like. Whether this will work or not is unclear because similar ideas have been implemented in software using techniques such as neural networks for years.

And if a computer isn’t thinking in 50 years time I think we really will have to start looking at dualist possibilities. Maybe there really is something more to consciousness than the brain. What it could possibly be I have no idea, but I see no reason to even contemplate the possibility until there is good evidence that we need to look.

Having a thinking machine to discuss things with would be a really interesting experience. I don’t want to sound like a complete loser computer geek who spends too much time with his computer, but I can’t help but think that they might make a lot more sense than most humans!

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