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The Turing Test

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The Turing Test, and its creator Alan Turing, have had a profound effect on computer science and artificial intelligence.

As a simple matter, the Turing Test is easy to describe. You sit in a room with a device in front of you. In the next room is a person connected to your device and a machine also connected to your device. You cannot see either the person or the machine in the next room. As you use your device to talk back and forth with the person and machine in the next room, could you tell which is human and which is machine?

I use the words device and machine because, in 1950, when Alan Turing proposed this test, computers as we know them did not exist. Primitive computers had started to appear. And, of course, there was a millenia or more of work on automata, or what we might call robots, from ancient times through the Renaissance to the modern era. People loved to build machines that could do stuff that made them seem human. Or just for fun.

Turing himself in the 1930s had described what became known as the Turing machine. But it was a set of ideas that described what we call a computer and solved a mathematical problem. Turing had more interest in the math problem, and less interest in the physical machine.

How the Turing Test Was Created

The Turing test first appeared as an idea in a paper he wrote, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, published in 1950. Unlike many academic papers, his essay is chatty and easy to read.

He begins by asking the question, “Can computers think?” Then he ignores the question and suggests a game:

 

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