to an unknown audience
Turing on Sonnet-Writing Machines/  /May 10, 2007
Plowing through Alan Turing: The Enigma, I learned and recalled a lot about Turing, including his initial paper on computability (the question of what can be computed), his code-breaking work during the war, and his work developing some of the first digital computers—but I kept forgetting that he was also one of the first proponents of artificial intelligence. In various quotations throughout the book, he seems to take it as obvious that computers could simulate human intelligence—a possibility which seems quite optimistic today and, you'd have thought, nearly inconceivable in 1950. Turing labors to produce programs that calculate prime numbers, and even then they crap out at something like 2^300. Yet still he thinks it quite likely that by the year 2000 computers would be playing chess, writing sonnets, and doing everything else that humans do. It occurs to me that the limitations of scale are the last thing you think about when presented with a new technology: your mind runs right to the infinite limit of the thing, since you have no real concept of how difficult it is to scale such a new thing.

Anyway, what I wanted to share was this interesting quote, which sheds a lot of light on what he imagined for artificial intelligence:

I certainly hope and believe that no great efforts will be put into making machines with the most distinctively human, but non-intellectual characteristics, such as the shape of the human body. It appears to me to be quite futile to make such attempts and their results would have something like the unpleasant quality of artificial flowers. Attempts to produce a thinking machine seem to me to be in a different category.
Alan Turing, quoted in Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, p. 420

I am one of those people who thinks that an important component of our learning and intelligence (at least of the sonnet-writing variety) is rooted in our bodily experience, and conception of the body. So a machine that had "human" intelligence but didn't have a human-like body would be, arguably, something different—perhaps a human level of intelligence but not a human intelligence—and the difference would be discernable in the creature's writings.

The same belief seems to be reflected in this bit, from a London Times interview with Turing in 1949:

... I do not see why it [a computer] should not enter any one of the fields normally covered by the human intellect, and eventually compete on equal terms.

I do not think you can even draw the line about sonnets, though the comparison is perhaps a little bit unfair because a sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine.

ibid., p. 406

This is not entirely true, I think, because I appreciate poems like those written by Alfred, a poetry-generating computer program; but then, it's in rather a different way than I do those written by (say) Robert Hass or Anne Carson.

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