Alan Turing: The experiment that shaped artificial intelligence (2024)

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By Prof Noel Sharkey

Artificial Intelligence, University of Sheffield

Computer pioneer and artificial intelligence (AI) theorist Alan Turing would have been 100 years old this Saturday. To mark the anniversary the BBC has commissioned a series of essays. In this, the fourth article, his influence on AI research and the resulting controversy are explored.

Alan Turing was clearly a man ahead of his time. In 1950, at the dawn of computing, he was already grappling with the question: "Can machines think?"

This was at a time when the first general purpose computers had only just been built.

The term artificial intelligence had not even been coined. John McCarthy would come up with the term in 1956, two years after Alan Turing's untimely death.

Yet his ideas proved both to have a profound influence over the new field of AI, and to cause a schism amongst its practitioners.

Knocking down naysayers

One of Turing's lasting legacies to AI, and not necessarily a good one, is his approach to the problem of thinking machines.

He wrote: "I have no very convincing arguments of a positive nature to support my views."

Instead, he turned the tables on those who might be sceptical about the idea of machines thinking, unleashing his formidable intellect on a range of possible objections, from religion to consciousness.

With so little known about where computing was heading at this time, the approach made sense. He asserted correctly that "conjectures are of great importance since they suggest useful lines of research".

But 62 years on, now that we have advanced computers to test, it seems wrong that some proponents of AI still demand the onus be put on sceptics to prove the idea of an intelligent machine impossible.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell ridiculed this type of situation, likening it to asking a sceptic to disprove there is a china teapot revolving around the sun while insisting the teapot is too small to be revealed.

This can be seen as wrong-footing the scientific process of hypothesis testing and evidence collection.

The Imitation Game

In fact, Turing well understood the need for empirical evidence, <link> <caption>proposing what has become known as the Turing Test</caption> <url href="" platform="highweb"/> </link> to determine if a machine was capable of thinking. The test was an adaptation of a Victorian-style competition called the imitation game.

It involves secluding a man and woman from an interrogator who has to guess which is which by asking questions and studying written replies.

The man aims to fool the interrogator, while the woman tries to help him.

In the Turing Test, a computer program replaces the man. Turing asked: "Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman."

Effectively, the test studies whether the interrogator can determine which is computer and which is human (although Turing did not explicitly say that the interrogator should be told that one of the respondents was a computer it seems clear to me from his example questions that this was what he intended).

The idea was that if the questioner could not tell the difference between human and machine, the computer would be considered to be thinking.

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Failing the test

Turing suggested that by the year 2000 the average interrogator would have less than a 70% chance of making the right decision after five minutes of questioning.

My iPhone has more than 500 times the storage capacity he thought would be required and orders of magnitude more processing power, yet passing the test still seems a long way off.

In 1990, New York businessman Hugh Loebner set up the annual Loebner Prize competition with a prize of $100,000 (£63,500) to the creator of a machine that could pass the Turing Test.


The AI aristocracy strongly supported the contest until it became clear how badly the machines were performing.

Now in its twenty-second year, no machine has come even close to winning.

Marvin Minsky, one of the fathers of AI, wrote in 1995: "I do hope that someone will volunteer to violate this proscription so that Mr Loebner will indeed revoke his stupid prize, save himself some money, and spare us the horror of this obnoxious and unproductive annual publicity campaign."

No-one in AI seems to take the failure of the Turing Test as an argument against the possibility of thinking machines.

Because Turing had talked about a future "imaginable machine", some of the proponents say that we will have them at a future date. But others now argue that the Turing Test simply is not the best way to measure machine intelligence.

AI moves on

Despite the failure of machines to deceive us into believing they are human, Turing would be excited by the remarkable progress of AI.

It is flourishing in so many spheres of activity, from robots investigating the progress of climate change to computers running the world's finances.

I expect that Turing would have danced for joy in 1997 when Deep Blue defeated world champion Gary Kasparov at chess.

I can also imagine him cheering in the wings of the TV game show Jeopardy when the program Watson beat the two best human opponents in the history of the American game.

It is difficult to tell how any of these achievements would have been possible without the continued inspiration from Turing's original and radical ideas.

In my opinion, the Turing Test remains a useful way to chart the progress of AI and I believe that humans will be discussing it for centuries to come.

<italic>Noel Sharkey is professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield and co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.</italic>

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Alan Turing: The experiment that shaped artificial intelligence (2024)


What did Alan Turing say about artificial intelligence? ›

I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted. If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent.

What is the Turing test for artificial intelligence? ›

This test attempts to trick AI, as judge or interrogator, into believing a human is AI. To conduct this test, you'd need to use another AI system as an interlocutor alongside a human to answer the AI judge's questions. For the human to pass the test, the AI judge must identify the human interlocutor.

How to pass the Turing test? ›

To pass a well-designed Turing test, the machine must use natural language, reason, have knowledge and learn. The test can be extended to include video input, as well as a "hatch" through which objects can be passed: this would force the machine to demonstrate skilled use of well designed vision and robotics as well.

Did ChatGPT pass the Turing test? ›

In the study, ChatGPT's version 4 tested within normal ranges for the five traits but showed itself only as agreeable as the bottom third of human respondents. The bot passed the Turing test, but it would not have won itself many friends. Version 4 stood head and shoulders, or chip and motherboards, above version 3.

Can Siri pass the Turing test? ›

Can Siri pass the Turing Test? Probably not. Siri would have to be able to convincingly carry out a conversation with a subject and be able to generate its own thoughts. So far, Siri only works with simple sentences and short phrases and is unable to carry out a full-blown conversation.

What was Alan Turing's significant contribution to artificial intelligence? ›

Often considered the father of modern computer science, Alan Turing was famous for his work developing the first modern computers, decoding the encryption of German Enigma machines during the second world war, and detailing a procedure known as the Turing Test, forming the basis for artificial intelligence.

Has any AI passed the Turing Test? ›

The program, known as Eugene Goostman, is the first artificial intelligence to pass the test, originally developed by 20th-century mathematician Alan Turing. The machine was tasked with persuading 30 human interrogators of its humanity, communicating with them via a series of five-minute keyboard conversations.

What was the Alan Turing test? ›

The Turing Test is a deceptively simple method of determining whether a machine can demonstrate human intelligence: If a machine can engage in a conversation with a human without being detected as a machine, it has demonstrated human intelligence.

What is artificial intelligence short answer? ›

Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to computer systems capable of performing complex tasks that historically only a human could do, such as reasoning, making decisions, or solving problems.

How to tell AI from humans? ›

One of the most telling signs of AI-generated text is inconsistency in style or voice.

Who is the father of AI? ›

John McCarthy (1927–2011), an American computer scientist and cognitive scientist, often hailed as the "father of artificial intelligence" (AI), made significant contributions to both AI and computer science.

What did Alan Turing say about AI? ›

Turing gave quite possibly the earliest public lecture (London, 1947) to mention computer intelligence, saying, “What we want is a machine that can learn from experience,” and that the “possibility of letting the machine alter its own instructions provides the mechanism for this.”

Has the Turing test been solved? ›

“But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can't tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you've just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart.

Is the Turing test still used today? ›

To this day, the Turing Test is widely considered a benchmark for measuring the success of AI research.

Has any human failed the Turing test? ›

Many are familiar with the Turing Test, named for computing pioneer Alan Turing, in which a machine attempts to pass as human in a written chat with a person. Despite a few high-profile claims of success, the machines have so far failed — but surprisingly, a few humans have failed to be recognized as such, too.

Who beat ChatGPT? ›

Surprisingly, the AI trend enabled competitors to rise against ChatGPT. For the first time, one succeeded, according to the LMSYS Chatbot Arena. Claude 3 Opus, Anthropic's latest artificial intelligence, took the top spot on this global leaderboard, pulling down GPT-4 to second place. So how did Claude beat ChatGPT?

What does GPT stand for? ›

GPT stands for Generative Pre-training Transformer. In essence, GPT is a kind of artificial intelligence (AI). When we talk about AI, we might think of sci-fi movies or robots. But AI is much more mundane and user-friendly.

How many people pass the Turing test? ›

This is actually a very interesting question that is widely debated right now. The Turing Test is actually "used", its just never been passed.

Can the Chinese room pass the Turing test? ›

The Chinese room has all the elements of a Turing complete machine, and thus is capable of simulating any digital computation whatsoever. If Searle's room cannot pass the Turing test then there is no other digital technology that could pass the Turing test.

Who has passed Turing test? ›

Eugene Goostman is a chatbot that some regard as having passed the Turing test, a test of a computer's ability to communicate indistinguishably from a human.

Why was Alan Turing sentenced to death? ›

Three years later Turing was arrested for hom*osexuality – which was then illegal in Britain – and was found guilty of 'gross indecency'.

Who cracked the Enigma code? ›

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician. Born in London in 1912, he studied at both Cambridge and Princeton universities. He was already working part-time for the British Government's Code and Cypher School before the Second World War broke out.

Was Alan Turing a genius? ›

Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a British mathematical genius, and a founding father of artificial intelligence (AI) and modern cognitive science.

What was Alan Turing's famous quote? ›

A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human,” Turing wrote in 1950 defining his now-famous Turing Test.

What Stephen Hawking said about AI? ›

"I fear that AI may replace humans altogether. If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans," he told the magazine.

What did Elon Musk say about artificial intelligence? ›

Elon Musk says artificial intelligence will take all our jobs and that's not necessarily a bad thing. “Probably none of us will have a job,” Musk said about AI at a tech conference on Thursday.

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