Seminar Series

Some philosophical issues in Artificial Intelligence


Distinguished Professor Jack Copeland


University of Canterbury

Time & Place

Thu, 14 May 2020 13:00:00 NZST in


The field of Artificial Intelligence is commonly believed to have originated in the United States in 1956. In fact, the field's origins can be traced back 15 years earlier, to the wartime work of Alan Turing on the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking headquarters. This lecture describes the evolution of Turing's thinking about machine intelligence, from his early investigations at Bletchley Park through to his famous 1950 publication 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence', where he set out his 'imitation game'. Now known simply as the Turing Test, this has been the target of a hail of objections from both computer science and philosophy. I argue that the leading objections in the literature miss their mark, being for the most part based on misunderstandings of Turing's subtle test.

At the turn of the millennium Time magazine listed Alan Turing among the twentieth century's 100 greatest minds, alongside the Wright brothers, Albert Einstein, DNA busters Crick and Watson, and the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming. Turing's achievements during his short life of 42 years were legion. Best known as the genius who broke some of Germany's most secret codes during the war of 1939-45, Turing was also the father of the modern computer. Today, all who click or touch to open are familiar with the impact of his ideas. To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer's memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab of hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favourite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas this one now seems as obvious as the cart and the arch, but with this single invention—the stored-program universal computer—Turing changed the world.

Turing was a theoretician's theoretician, yet like Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton before him he also had immensely practical interests. In 1945 he designed a vast stored-program electronic computer called the Automatic Computing Engine, or ACE. Turing's sophisticated ACE design achieved commercial success as the English Electric Company's DEUCE, one of the earliest electronic computers to go on the market. In those days—the first eye-blink of the Information Age—the new machines sold at a rate of no more than a dozen or so a year. But in less than four decades, Turing's ideas transported us from an era where 'computer' was the term for a human clerk who did the sums in the back office of an insurance company or science lab, into a world where many have never known life without the Internet.

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Jack Copeland FRS NZ is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury and is Co-Director and Permanent Visiting Fellow of the Turing Centre at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He was recently the John Findlay Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Boston University.

In 2016 Jack received the international Covey Award in recognition of “a substantial record of innovative research in the field of computing and philosophy”. Dr M. Taddeo of Oxford University, who presented the award, said “Professor Copeland has contributed substantially to shape the research field of computing and philosophy. His books ... have cast an insightful light on crucial issues concerning artificial intelligence and the philosophical questions surrounding it, inspiring generations of students and scholars to undertake research in this field”. In 2017 his name was added to the IT History Society Honor Roll, which the Society describes as “a listing of a select few that have made an out-of-the-ordinary contribution to the information industry”. Also in 2017 the American Philosophical Association (Philosophy's largest professional body) awarded him their Barwise Prize for “significant and sustained contributions to areas relevant to philosophy and computing”. The citation describes him as “the world-wide expert on Alan Turing and a leading philosopher of AI, computing and information”, and also mentions his “influential books”, and his “pioneering work on hypercomputing”.

A Londoner by birth, Jack gained a D.Phil. in mathematical logic from the University of Oxford. His books include The Essential Turing (Oxford University Press); Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Codebreaking Computers (Oxford University Press); Alan Turing’s Electronic Brain (Oxford University Press); Computability: Turing, Gödel, Church, and Beyond (MIT Press); Logic and Reality (Oxford University Press), and Artificial Intelligence (Blackwell). He has published more than 100 journal articles on the history and philosophy of both computing and mathematical logic. In 2014 Oxford University Press published his highly accessible paperback biography Turing, and in 2017 published his The Turing Guide.

Jack has been script advisor, co-writer, and scientific consultant for a number of historical documentaries. One of them, Arte TV’s The Man Who Cracked the Nazi Codes is based on his bio Turing and won the audience’s Best Documentary prize at the 2015 FIGRA European film festival; another, the BBC’s Code-Breakers: Bletchley Parks Lost Heroes won two BAFTAs and was listed as one of the year’s three best historical documentaries at the 2013 Media Impact Awards in New York City.