Autumn 2012 Edition
Published: 12 September 2012
Turing's Legacy

Turing's Legacy

"Can machines think?" One sentence into his famous 1950 paper on Computing Machinery and Intelligence British mathematician Alan Turing asked a question that led to the creation of the discipline of artificial intelligence, while his analogous descriptions of the mind as a computer were the formative basis of modern cognitive science.

During the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) held in Dublin and attended by over 3,000 delegates in May, the profound impact of Turing across multiple scientific disciplines was discussed by a panel chaired by Professor Mark Keane, UCD Chair of Computer Science, who was joined by Professor Dermot Moran, UCD School of Philosophy, as well as Professor Marcus de Sautoy of Oxford University and Dr. Freddy Lecue of IBM.

Their discussion, 'Turing's Legacy', looked at Turing's work not only in terms of modern artificial intelligence (A.I.) research but also at its far-reaching effects on many disciplines that, at first glance, are seemingly unrelated.

As a computer scientist and cognitive scientist Proffesor Mark Keane's research spans two interconnected disciplines that owe their legacy to Turing. His work on the use of analogy in creativity and problem solving derives from Turing stating that the mind can be seen as a universal computing machine.

A statue of Alan Turing which now has pride of place in Bletchley Park. Photo cc Flickr user Duane WesselsA statue of Alan Turing which now has pride of place in Bletchley Park. Photo cc Flickr user Duane Wessels

"This metaphor goes right through cognitive science. That idea of the mind as a universal computing machine is his legacy. It was not strongly stated until he outlined it and it wasn't fully realised within the field of cognitive science until the 1970's."

"Think of abnormal psychology in the time of Freud where the water system model [thoughts as water, consciousness as iceberg] was used. When you look back on those older models and how hamstrung the discipline you realize it was because it didn't have good overarching metaphor."

Turing's legacy also extends to economics: specifically, predicting stock market crashes. Keane's research analysed over 17,000 online newspaper articles related to finance and spanning a four year period. A strong correlation was found between the language used in these articles and the movement in the stock market. This research can be used to make predictions explains Keane.

Turing's theory of computable functions, when applied to pieces of text, can infer patterns of behaviour over time: "You can computationally characterise the structure of language and from this you can find out a lot about the voice of the herd," explains Keane.

Even biology has benefited from Turing. In fact, the biosciences are predicated on the idea that all biological processes are computational, says Keane. "If you look at the way that neurological or biochemical pathways are characterised or even gene analysis and gene alignment, you begin to realise that we are living in an information age where everything can be characterised as information."

"This positing of the universal Turing machine underlies everything computable we have today."

Despite his vast legacy Turing is known best for his test of machine intelligence whereby a computer capable of tricking someone into thinking that they are conversing with a human is proof of a thinking machine.

The Truing test has been referred to as a "blind alley" in modern AI research due to interpretations of its definition of machine intelligence but it has much more to offer in terms of philosophical implications says Proffesor Dermot Moran.

"He set a very interesting challenge [with the Turing test] but he also put his finger on something else without fully realising it," Moran asserts.

"He thought that the mere simulation of intelligence was true intelligence. This leads us to dissimulation. Being able to trick others is, unfortunately, a crucial feature of intelligence."

By studying chimps and watching them hiding things on each other we can see how crucial dissimulation is to primate intelligence says Moran: "Chimps have been observed opening a box to find a banana.

"When they are in the company of other chimps they close the box, leaving the banana there. When they get a chance they sneak back to the box and grab the banana when they think no one else is looking. There is a certain amount of trickery built into nature."

While Moran feels that the Turing test fails as an attempt to build a machine with consciousness he points out that it has been crucial to thinking about thinking, or metacognition.

"Dissimulation also allows us to have second order intentions. We can have a deep desire to smoke or drink alcohol while reflecting upon these drives and feeling that they are wrong. We have the ability to form a contrary attitude towards our own desires."

By stating what he defined as a thinking machine, Turing also got us thinking about what can and cannot be reproduced artificially, says Moran.

"While we already have a method of reproducing intelligent beings the benefit of mimicking biological systems is evident in areas biomechanics, enabling the design of better artificial limbs."

Professor Moran finishes by stating that a huge part of human intelligence that cannot be replicated by a machine is the ability to imagine: "Try modeling imagination". One, however, cannot help but think that Turing's greatest legacy is imagination: by taking a leap and envisioning the mind as a computational device we have learned more about what it means to be human than we ever could have in a world without Turing.

Speaking about University College Dublin's role in the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF), Professor Desmond Fitzgerald, Vice President for Research, said: "UCD was involved throughout the programme, with contributions from science, engineering, innovation, humanities and the arts.

"The success of the Euroscience Open Forum made the public excited about science and appreciate how scientists transform their lives through their discoveries."


Professor Mark Keane and Professor Dermot Moran were in conversation with Marie Boran (BSc 2002) a freelance science and technology writer. Produced by UCD University Relations