Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Can We Even Answer that Question?

As The Leonardo continues to host Alien Worlds & Androids we thought we would highlight some of the minds behind robotics and artificial intelligence you might not have known about. I found some inspiration in the exhibit itself, which mentions the captivating Turing test. This thought-experiment was devised in a 1950 paper by Alan Turing, who is widely considered the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

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Turing proposed his “test” — which he called the “Imitation Game” — to see if machines could behave in a way that is indistinguishable from a human being, specifically through a blind conversation.

The test is set up like this. One human player, the “interrogator,” is isolated and asked to figure out which of the two other players is a computer and which is a human. The interrogator can do this only using written questions and responses. If he or she cannot reliably determine which is the computer, then that computer is said to have “passed” the test.

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The idea of this test has inspired all sorts of things in our culture. Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, sets up a moral dilemma in our struggles to distinguish android from person (the book was the basis for the famous film Blade Runner.) The Loebner Prize is awarded annually to the team which designs a chatbot that best passes (according to a panel of judges) a conventional Turing setup.

The idea that a machine could pass as a human by fooling us leads naturally to the suspicion that machines are capable of thinking. We’ve even begun talking about computers as though they have minds (e.g. “the computer is thinking.”) Turing himself began the original paper with the question “Can machines think?” He quickly concluded, though, that the question “is too meaningless to deserve discussion.” This is because defining “thought” and discovering, if we can, how thought arises from the matter of our brains, let alone circuitry or programs, is an ancient philosophic quest that no one has solved. Androids, should we ever make them, would simply embody this old problem.

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