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A New Turing Test

This may be very presumptuous of me; but here goes anyway! As you may have noticed the stars seem to be aligning around Alan...

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This may be very presumptuous of me; but here goes anyway! As you may have noticed the stars seem to be aligning around Alan Turing currently. Some of those stars are of the Hollywood variety, others from the still stellar but less rarified worlds of publishing & this.

Turing has become, dare one say, fashionable, because he articulated and crystalized (in 1950!) a deep seated fear that we have about our future in a world where automation, computing, and robots, bring into question the very role of humans. “Can machines think?” Turing asked, raising the spectre of humans becoming subservient to a new race of machine overlords.

As the computer revolution has unfolded Turing’s philosophical question has become more pressing. Whereas Turing himself firmly believed the answer to his question was, and always would be, no, the exponential development of software and hardware has brought us to a point where, some argue, Turing’s Test – could you tell the difference between a human and a computer from their responses to your questions if you couldn’t physically see them? – has been met. The digerati are all a flutter over the implications and the consequences of this threshold, seemingly, being overcome.

Last week my colleague Rob Brown spoke at Constellation Research’s Connected Enterprise event in California on a panel entitled “What Happens to Humans in the Future of Work?” The question for consideration captures nicely the latest manifestation of a zeitgeist in which thinking people worry about the future value of their thinking.

Turing’s Test scares us because when it is met (not everyone agrees it has [read this] but let’s assume even if it hasn’t it will be at some stage) mankind will be toast. Cue mental images of the Terminator, Mad Max, Elysium, etc etc.

A moment’s reflection though surely soothes the fevered brow. I wrote recently about our ability to create new things to do and my sense that this innate quality is inexhaustible. So, even when machines do begin to think there will surely still be a lot left for us to do.

My way of articulating and crystalizing this thought is my “new” Turing Test, “can a machine create a company?” Assume a machine (i.e. software residing within hardware) can write a piece of code that is theoretically monetizable.  Could that machine take that software and turn it into a company in the way that Larry Page and Sergey Brin took “PageRank” and made it into Google? Seems unlikely, no? Whilst it is conceivable that software could write software that could be monetized – software could write an app like Summly – it’s inconceivable (at least to me) that software could find VC backing, set up meetings with Gartner analysts, do demos at Dreamforce, conduct the IPO, understand its competitor’s moves, crack the Chinese market (as just a few examples) without human intervention. Though Google (again as just one example) is a software company it is much more than just software; people are involved in every aspect of what it does and how it does it. Thousands of people within companies do things every day that will continue to be vital to their companies’ health irrespective of whether the machines within that company are “thinking”. To think otherwise is to drift off into argumentative reducto absurdum. In my humble opinion.

In the Nicholas Carr book (referenced above) it’s fascinating to see quite how deep these fears of automation are; Carr references Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, JFK, and of course Ned Ludlam, all ruminating on their concerns for a world in which machines play a more and more prominent part. These concerns are clearly timeless and universal. So, as the new wave of machines taking over the earth argument heats up, take a moment to think of my New Turing Test to be reassured that the point at which we humans are truly redundant is a long, long, long, way away.

A penultimate thought; when the 18 year old Ben Pring wandered the halls of the Philosophy department at Manchester University in the early ‘80’s little did he know that Turing had wandered those very halls a mere 30 years earlier. Not even when he was studying AI in his freshman year. He was more excited about going to the opening night of the Hacienda. To be fair though, he did quickly buy this and see this when he realized the error of his ways.

A final thought; Steve Jobs famously said “you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”.

That’s sort of how I feel. Could a computer do this?

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