Alan Turing: Can Machines Think? | Third Way


I’ve a short piece on Alan Turing in this month’s Third Way. If you don’t already subscribe, you should.

One of the key strands of Turing’s thinking was on whether a machine could think like a human. After World War 1, where men had been treated like disposable fighting machines, and World War 2, where millions had been exterminated by cold machinary, this was a hugely important question.

If a machine could be built that was indistinguishable from a thinking human, what would that mean for us as a species? The ‘Turing Test’ was thus established – could a human tell if their interlocutor was another human, or just a machine?

Part of the paradox that Turing identified within this test is that of the dichotomy of infallibility and intelligence. ‘If a machine is expected to be infallible,’ he said, ‘it cannot also be intelligent.’ Part of what it is to be human is to get to solutions by making mistakes.

Sadly, the society of the day never saw his sexuality as anything other than brokeness, and thus tried to ‘fix’ him with ostrogen injections. One of the greatest thinkers – and peacemakers – of the 20th Century thus ended his own life in deep depression by eating a poisoned apple. A tragic, and hugely resonant end to an amazing life.