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Can Computers Think?

Entry 1659, on 2014-06-14 at 21:09:40 (Rating 1, Computers)

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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Comment 42 (4065) by OJB on 2014-07-01 at 14:12:57: (view earlier comments)

Well I didn't actually apologise, I just said I was thinking about it and didn't follow through, but I'm pleased to hear you weren't offended. I think it's important to be able to engage in "robust" debate even if it strays occasionally from a strictly factual approach!

Regarding the rest of your comment: I think I will write a whole blog post on why you're wrong. Yes, I'm prepared to do that to correct your erroneous logic. No, please, don't thank me, it's just another service I offer! :)

Anyway, I'll write the post and put a reference to it here. I am going to Australia for a few days tomorrow so it might be something I can do while sitting in a metal tube doing 800 km/h and flying at 10,000 meters over the Tasman Sea.

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Comment 43 (4068) by richard on 2014-07-01 at 17:00:04:

Ha - Well, thanks for thinking about it! I sincerely look forward to the other post. I do agree this is getting well away from 'computers thinking'. I'd say enjoy the trip, but of course whether you will or not is all completely pre-determined anyway... or on the other hand - I hope you enjoy the trip! ;) Cheers.

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Comment 44 (4069) by OJB on 2014-07-02 at 09:32:09:

Yeah the predetermination thing is an interesting issue theologically, as well as philosophically and scientifically. Of course, it was predetermined that you would wish be a good trip even though I have no choice in the matter! Anyway, I have two days absorbing technical information and two days relaxing so I reckon it should be OK - predetermined or not!

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Comment 45 (4070) by OJB on 2014-07-02 at 13:20:09:

You will be aware of issues in Christianity regarding predestination and the incompatibility of the doctrine of free will with the doctrine of an omniscient God? You will be aware of the ideas presented by Calvinism and how these influence various churches, including yours to some extent?

So you should be aware that free will does not require a god and is certainly not guaranteed by the existence of a god, in fact the opposite case could be made. On the other hand, the non-existence of a god practically guarantees free will, at least within the definition of free will which I follow (this debate gets back to definitions again).

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Comment 46 (4071) by OJB on 2014-07-02 at 21:00:09:

OK, here's the blog post I promised! Written while waiting around at Christchurch airport.

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