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Turing’s Cathedral

November 2nd, 2005 · No Comments

[via John Battelle] George Dyson writes in Edge:

We can divide the computational universe into three sectors: computable problems; non-computable problems (that can be given a finite, exact description but have no effective procedure to deliver a definite result); and, finally, questions whose answers are, in principle, computable, but that, in practice, we are unable to ask in unambiguous language that computers can understand.

We do most of our computing in the first sector, but we do most of our living (and thinking) in the third. In the real world, most of the time, finding an answer is easier than defining the question. It’s easier to draw something that looks like a cat, for instance, than to describe what, exactly, makes something look like a cat. A child scribbles indiscriminately, and eventually something appears that resembles a cat. A solution finds the problem, not the other way around. The world starts making sense, and the meaningless scribbles (and a huge number of neurons) are left behind.

This is why Google works so well. All the answers in the known universe are there, and some very ingenious algorithms are in place to map them to questions that people ask.

My visit to Google? Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” explained one of my hosts after my talk. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.”

When I returned to highway 101, I found myself recollecting the words of Alan Turing, in his seminal paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, a founding document in the quest for true AI. “In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children,” Turing had advised. “Rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.”

Google is Turing’s cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope.

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