Home > Skepticism, Tech > It's not all priority queues and hash tables

It's not all priority queues and hash tables

I’ve been thinking, my Operating Systems professor has imparted a lot of non-CS wisdom in the two classes I’ve had with him:

  • In Theory of Computation, he made a remark about only God being able to choose a certain feature of something we were discussing (pumping lemma, I think). That might not sound odd (a sort “God only knows” expression), but the way he said it was strange.
  • In OS, he told us that no one knows the future (he was discussing job scheduling algorithms that take into account running time). Fine, but for some reason he also decided to impart to us that people who do claim to know the future (psychics) are really vague about it. True, but sort of a strange subject to broach in a CS class.
  • Finally, today he was lecturing on deadlock recovery algorithms, one of which was to stop all jobs not in a deadlock that were using the maximum amount of resources. He then compared this to communism and informed us that a relative of his was almost shot in China because of his money. He gave his money away and was spared. He then concluded that Communism doesn’t work.

So, yeah. Not exactly controversial stuff, but odd in a CS class.

Continuing on the theme of things I learned in class today, a reminder that brilliant people have their intellectual failings. Alan Turing wrote an article in 1950 called Computing Machinery and Intelligence in which he discusses the famous “Turing test” and also ponders whether or not machines will be able to think. The “Turing test” is this:

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the ‘imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A.” The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus:

C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair?

Now suppose X is actually A, then A must answer. It is A’s object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification. His answer might therefore be:

“My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long.”

In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary. The object of the game for the third player (B) is to help the interrogator. The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers. She can add such things as “I am the woman, don’t listen to him!” to her answers, but it will avail nothing as the man can make similar remarks.

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” 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? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

More or less, if a machine can trick a human into believing it’s a human when being interrogated, it’s thinking. Turing thought that by the year 2000 we would have a machine such that an interrogator would have only a 70% chance of making the right identification. We would essentially have machines that “think.” He goes on to consider some objections, finding them all weak. Except for one. What is that exception? “The Argument from Extrasensory Perception.” I kid you not.

This argument is to my mind quite a strong one. One can say in reply that many scientific theories seem to remain workable in practice, in spite of clashing with ESP; that in fact one can get along very nicely if one forgets about it. This is rather cold comfort, and one fears that thinking is just the kind of phenomenon where ESP may be especially relevant.

If telepathy is admitted it will be necessary to tighten our test up. The situation could be regarded as analogous to that which would occur if the interrogator were talking to himself and one of the competitors was listening with his ear to the wall. To put the competitors into a “telepathy-proof room” would satisfy all requirements.

So, there’s your lesson for today. Smart people can believe silly things, too.

Categories: Skepticism, Tech
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