Walter Isaacson on the Lessons of Alan Turing: How Creativity Drives Machines

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Walter Isaacson writes: We live in the age of computers, but few of us know who invented them. Because most of the pioneers were part of collaborative teams working in wartime secrecy, they aren’t as famous as an Edison, Bell or Morse. But one genius, the English mathematician Alan Turing, stands out as a heroic-tragic figure, and he’s about to get his due in a new movie, “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which won the top Alan-Turing-portraitaward at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month and will open in theaters in November.

“He also wrestled with the issue of free will: Are our personal preferences and impulses all predetermined and programmed, like those of a machine?”

The title of the movie refers to a test that Turing thought would someday show that machines could think in ways indistinguishable from humans. His belief in the potential of artificial intelligence stands in contrast to the school of thought that argues that the combined talents of humans and computers, working together as partners, will always be more creative than computers working alone.

Despite occasional breathless headlines, the quest for pure artificial intelligence has so far proven disappointing. But the alternative approach of connecting humans and machines more intimately continues to produce astonishing innovations. As the movie about him shows, Alan Turing’s own deeply human personal life serves as a powerful counter to the idea that there is no fundamental distinction between the human mind and artificial intelligence.

[Check out Walter Isaacson’s book “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” at Amazon.com]

Turing, who had the cold upbringing of a child born on the fraying fringe of the British gentry, displayed a innovatorstrait that is common among innovators. In the words of his biographer Andrew Hodges, he was “slow to learn that indistinct line that separated initiative from disobedience.”

He taught himself early on to keep secrets. At boarding school, he realized he was homosexual, and he became infatuated with a classmate who died of tuberculosis before they graduated. During World War II, he became a leader of the teams at Bletchley Park, England, that built machines to break the German military codes.

Feeling the need to hide both his sexuality and his code-breaking work, Turing often found himself playing an imitation game by pretending to be things he wasn’t. He also wrestled with the issue of free will: Are our personal preferences and impulses all predetermined and programmed, like those of a machine?

These questions came together in a paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” that Turing published in 1950. With a schoolboy’s sense of fun, he invented a game—one that is still being played and debated—to give meaning to the question, “Can machines think?” He proposed a purely empirical definition of artificial intelligence: If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, then we have no meaningful reason to insist that the machine isn’t “thinking.”

Colossus, the world's first electronic programmable computer, at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. Bletchley Park was the British forces' intelligence center during WWII, where cryptographers deciphered top-secret military communiques between Hitler and his armed forces. The communiques were encrypted in the Lorenz code which the Germans considered unbreakable, but the codebreakers at Bletchley cracked the code with the help of Colossus. SSPL/Getty Images

Colossus, the world’s first electronic programmable computer, at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. Bletchley Park was the British forces’ intelligence center during WWII, where cryptographers deciphered top-secret military communiques between Hitler and his armed forces. The communiques were encrypted in the Lorenz code which the Germans considered unbreakable, but the codebreakers at Bletchley cracked the code with the help of Colossus. SSPL/Getty Images

His test, now usually called the Turing Test, was a simple imitation game. An interrogator sends written questions to a human and a machine in another room and tries to determine which is which. If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, he argued, then it makes no sense to deny that the machine is “thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »


Is this the Most Powerful Woman in China?

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“She has the ability to change the course of people’s lives with a click of her mouse.”

Interview with Actress Yao Chen

The Telegraph‘s Sarah Keenlyside: “Is it like having a superpower?” I ask the actress Yao Chen as she raises her coffee cup to her lips. She breaks into a broad smile as her translator explains my meaning. “I’m getting more mature,” she says, avoiding the question. “These days I am much more careful and cautious.”

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Yao Chen in Syria with UNHCR

China’s Answer to Angelina Jolie

“Stories abound of children’s operations that were paid for by donations from her Weibo followers.”

One could add the word “modest” to that list, because Yao, self-effacing as she is, has more followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) than the population of Britain. That’s 71 million, in case you were wondering. And when five per cent of the population of one of the world’s most powerful (not to mention politically sensitive) countries is hanging on your every word, you have a lot of influence, no matter how cautious you are.

“When I was younger a family member shared the gospel with me. And over the course of that summer I read the Bible and it just answered all of the questions I had about life, so very soon after I was baptised.”

In fact, so great is that influence, she has the ability to change the course of people’s lives with a click of her mouse. Stories abound of children’s operations that were paid for by donations from her Weibo followers, of old ladies who put their entire savings into causes she supports – even of a condemned man who was suddenly hailed as a hero because of her impassioned online defence of his character (he was a friend of her father’s).

How did a nice middle-class actress conquer Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, and turn herself into one of the most influential figures in the world?

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A still from Color Me Love (2010)

So how did a 34-year-old from a small coastal city in south-east China rise from obscurity to become one of Time magazine’s 100 most powerful people on the planet? (Forbes ranked her 83rd among the world’s most influential women.) And, more to the point, why have we never heard of her?

Let’s start with the second question. Unlike her compatriots Gong Li, Jackie Chan and Fan Bing Bing, Yao has never made a Hollywood film and speaks almost no English. Read the rest of this entry »