What’s the Big Idea?
Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. That is how René Descartes famously differentiated humans from other creatures. And yet, that statement might eventually be in need of an update or at least a strong qualifier, as computers are advancing rapidly from animal-like intelligence to one day perhaps equalling and surpassing human intelligence.
Alan Turing was the first to foresee this possibility in 1950, when he published the seminal essay on artificial intelligence, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which proposed a typewritten test to answer the question “Can machines think?”
According to Jaron Lanier, the right way to understand the famous “Turing Test” is to understand that it “began in the mind of somebody who was very close to suicide.”
In other words, Alan Turing, who was born 100 years ago today, is the very embodiment of the philosophical issue we face as we integrate technology into every aspect of our lives, and the distinction between man and machine grows ever slipperier. This rapid change to the human condition has been the source of great anxiety, as we start to call into question the very essence of what it is to be human. That is why Lanier says Turing’s test amounted to “a flight from life, but also a defense of life.”
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What’s the Significance?
Lanier uses intentionally strong language, arguing that Turing was “murdered” by his government. Turing, after all, was forced to undergo treatments that were designed to change his biology. We can only speculate about the exact psychological state Turing was in when he committed suicide, which he did shortly after he designed his famous ‘test,’ which Lanier describes as both a “flight from life and a defense of life.”
However, as we consider the implications today of merging man and machine, Turing’s personal story is a very revealing window into the types of bioethical considerations we need to take into account. What if a government or large corporation can control our biology and attempt to change who we are?
In slightly less sinister terms — depending on your perspective — are we already ceding this control away as we continue to voluntarily integrate technology into every part of our lives, including our bodies and our minds? Are we unintentionally (or in some cases quite intentionally) giving up our humanity in the process?
These are big questions, and we have raised them repeatedly in a series called Humanizing Technology, which examines the ways that technology can make us more, not less, human. To view this series, including additional insights from Jaron Lanier and other experts, click here.
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