The Turing Test and Extrasensory Perception

Having been interested in Artificial Intelligence for a long time, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read Alan Turing’s famous article: “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” until today. This is the article where the Imitation Game – later known as the Turing Test – is put forward.

Although I was familiar with most of Turing’s arguments there, reading it was nevertheless truly inspiring (more on that in a moment). Turing’s writing style is brilliant.

In part 6 of the article, Turing explores several contrary views to the notion that machines can think. Many of these are still today hot debates in AI discussions. One of them however, and actually the one that Turing seems to find the strongest one, struck me as quite odd. How could a thinking machine ever account for extrasensory perception such as “telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis” for which “the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming”?

As Turing was one of the greatest scientific and mathematical thinkers of the twentieth century, this tells me that as recently as 1949 when the article was written, extrasensory perception was seen as a scientifically proven phenomenon. Well, at least this counterclaim doesn’t seem to hold anymore 😉

The full passage follows below:

The Argument from Extrasensory Perception

I assume that the reader is familiar with the idea of extrasensory perception, and the meaning of the four items of it, viz., telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one’s ideas so as to fit these new facts in. Once one has accepted them it does not seem a very big step to believe in ghosts and bogies. The idea that our bodies move simply according to the known laws of physics, together with some others not yet discovered but somewhat similar, would be one of the first to go.

This argument is to my mind quite a strong one. One can say in reply that many scientific theories seem to remain workable in practice, in spite of clashing with ESP; that in fact one can get along very nicely if one forgets about it. This is rather cold comfort, and one fears that thinking is just the kind of phenomenon where ESP may be especially relevant.

A more specific argument based on ESP might run as follows: “Let us play the imitation game, using as witnesses a man who is good as a telepathic receiver, and a digital computer. The interrogator can ask such questions as ‘What suit does the card in my right hand belong to?’ The man by telepathyor clairvoyance gives the right answer 130 times out of 400 cards. The machine can only guess at random, and perhaps gets 104 right, so the interrogator makes the right identification.” There is an interesting possibility which opens here. Suppose the digital computer contains a random number generator. Then it will be natural to use this to decide what answer to give. But then the random number generator will be subject to the psychokinetic powers of the interrogator. Perhaps this psychokinesis might cause the machine to guess right more often than would be expected on a probability calculation, so that the interrogator might still be unable to make the right identification. On the other hand, he might be able to guess right without any questioning, by clairvoyance. With ESP anything may happen.

If telepathy is admitted it will be necessary to tighten our test up. The situation could be regarded as analogous to that which would occur if the interrogator were talking to himself and one of the competitors was listening with his ear to the wall. To put the competitors into a “telepathy-proof room” would satisfy all requirements.