Darwin & Turing: The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence

What evolution and computer science have taught us is that comprehension is not required for competence. Similarly, the human mind may not be so mysterious as is often thought. 

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This weekend marks 100 years since the birth of Alan Turing, the English logician who successfully cracked Nazi coding machines during WWII. Having pioneered concepts like "algorithm" and "computation", Turing is considered one of the chief architects of early computing as well as what would become artificial intelligence. Daniel Dennett, philosophy professor at Tufts University, sees a remarkable similarity between the thought of Turing and Charles Darwin. Both realized, according to Dennett, that comprehension is not necessary to achieve competency. In other words, neither the process of evolution nor contemporary computers are self-aware, but they nonetheless perform complex operations extremely efficiently. 

What's the Big Idea?

Dennett believes the idea that competency can be achieved without comprehension sheds light on our own conscious processes and helps to clarify the mind-body problem, i.e. how consciousness can arise from unconscious matter. "There is no principled line above which true comprehension is to be found," said Dennett, "even in our own case. The small child sorta understands her own sentence 'Daddy is a doctor,' and I sorta understand 'E=mc2.'" In other words, machines may not need to fully understand what "love" or "affection" mean in order to offer these condolences to humans, or to each other. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com


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