Turing at 100

Tomorrow is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, whose work made computers possible. I’m already seeing the trend in these memorials, and it is so very tedious. Turing is briefly acknowledged for his pioneering work, and then is immediately transformed into a martyr for gay rights. Like Oscar Wilde, his genius becomes secondary to his usefulness as a handy cudgel in the culture wars.

He would have hated it. Even Wilde, who liked to pretend that his life was his art, would have hated it. Wilde was a consummate artist, Turing was a mathematical genius, and both men recognized their own brilliance. These men were not their sexuality, and it’s reductive to turn great lives into some kind of Moral Lesson for use in educating the straights.

And Turing deserves better. His ideas about computation are at the foundation of all computing. He was the first to see (and to describe in exacting detail) how a machine would follow a set of instructions that could complete any computational task. These instructions were encoded as symbols that gave the machine its orders, and data which gave it its content, both of them written on tape that could spool back and forth to read commands and data. He called it an “A-machine” (for automatic). We call the concept a Turing machine.  He described it as

an infinite memory capacity obtained in the form of an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed. At any moment there is one symbol in the machine; it is called the scanned symbol. The machine can alter the scanned symbol and its behavior is in part determined by that symbol, but the symbols on the tape elsewhere do not affect the behaviour of the machine. However, the tape can be moved back and forth through the machine, this being one of the elementary operations of the machine.

The Turing machine wasn’t originally a physical machine, but a concept of computability. The idea was to create a fixed process that could, in theory, be carried out by human beings: a kind of human computer. This process was a way of understanding the working of the human mind, and then converting that understanding into a system that could be mechanized.

At first, he seemed to think only rote tasks could be performed by these machines, but at some point began to understand that the machines were capable of much more refined actions. He started to believe that they could think, and said that “we may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all purely intellectual fields.” This culminated in the landmark essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950.

You really should take some time to read it, because it’s accessible and bursting with interesting ideas (both good and bad). He makes a complete hash of theology, which is to be expected from an atheistic materialist trying to understand the theological dimensions of machine intelligence. But he does tackle one of the fundamental syllogisms at the heart of “thinking computers”, phrasing it this way: “Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think.”

It appears to me that the argument quoted above implies a serious restriction of the omnipotence of the Almighty. It is admitted that there are certain things that He cannot do such as making one equal to two, but should we not believe that He has freedom to confer a soul on an elephant if He sees fit? We might expect that He would only exercise this power in conjunction with a mutation which provided the elephant with an appropriately improved brain to minister to the needs of this sort. An argument of exactly similar form may be made for the case of machines. It may seem different because it is more difficult to “swallow.” But this really only means that we think it would be less likely that He would consider the circumstances suitable for conferring a soul. The circumstances in question are discussed in the rest of this paper. In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.

This is raw nonsense (we do not “create” children: we collaborate in their creation through a natural process), but it strikes at an interesting point: is intelligence–even unto the point of self-awareness–the condition for the existence of a soul? Materialists, of course, would say yes, because they do not admit of a transcendent soul, but only of consciousness. This consciousness is reliant upon a physical organ (the brain) that completely determines (and even pre-determines) its responses and reactions.

Christians, of course, reject this completely, viewing the soul as utterly transcendent: the absolute spiritual principle and essence of the individual: God-created and unperishable. Turing is merely toying with believers in his terminology and theology, but he has a serious point: can a machine become a repository for a God-created soul?

If God so wills it, He may do what he likes, but He has never shown any inclination towards such an action. Everything about our existence points to a deep and abiding link between soul and body. We are embodied spirit. The soul will one day leave the body, but the idea that it could ever be mechanized is not merely repellent: it defies our basic understanding of being. Embodiment matters. It is fundamental to the human experience.

“Computing Machinery and Intelligence” is the paper in which Turing outlined what became know as the Turing Test: challenging a computer to engage in a conversation with a judge in which the judge is not able to determine that he is speaking to a computer. This is, however, simply advanced mimicry, with a model of human thought programmed by human intelligence to mimic human response. As such, it would seem that Turing’s notion of a “soul” is a fairly limited thing.

We can see this is the case with his response to the Argument from Consciousness, in which he dismisses the assertion that no computer can pass the test until it can compose a sonnet or a concerto, thus proving that it can convey the sum of its emotions and experiences in some artistic form. He waves this away as mere “solipsism” that would be proof of nothing, thus missing the problem at the base of machine intelligence: a machine can not be said to think like a human until it can feel like a human, and express those feelings. And it will never be able to do that.

Turing doesn’t grasp that in this paper, and I’m not sure he ever did. Certainly many of his heirs in the world of computing and technology continue in their failure to apprehend the metaphysical problem at the heart of their attempts to create a machine that can pass for a human. They will never solve this problem because they remain focused on human consciousness as a purely physical phenomena, and fail to understand the divine spark that animates it.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://accordeonaire.blogspot.com/ Gary Chapin

    You and I have an acknowledged disagreement about this. I agree that Turing’s homosexuality was far from the most important thing about him, but even if you don’t have an especial interest in the issue (as I do), you can’t read any biography of Turning without feeling the enormous tragedy of how the end of his life played out because of the “treatment” he was required to undergo in order to stay out of prison. And, y’know, I’d say the same thing about Wilde. I don’t think it’s diminishing either of them to recognize the treatment they endured for stupid, stupid reasons.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Certainly, Turing’s treatment led to his death, but other than as a cudgel for the culture war, how really relevant is it? It’s like using the career of James Dean as an object lesson in driving too fast, or the life of Isadora Duncan as a warning about wearing long scarves. It’s only become a central issue because we’ve chosen to politicize the personal and redefine human sexuality as the axis point of identity. It’s not like forced chemical castration for homosexuals is really a pressing concern in the modern world. When the squalid and unjust ending of his life becomes more important than the revolutionary aspects of his thought, then we’ve lost the narrative. I’m not saying it’s not part of the story: I’m saying that, based on too many articles I’ve read, it’s become the MAIN part of the story. The lede shifts from “Alan Turing, genius who birthed the modern world” to “Alan Turing, gay martyr (and we’re going to make you feel really bad about in order to further our agenda, because who knows how many potential Alan Turings are dying right now because they can’t married?).”

  • Pingback: Turing’s Death Not a Suicide?


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