By now, most everyone probably has heard of Alan Turing. He played a lead role in breaking Nazi codes during WWII and contributed to the conceptual framework behind modern computers. He also devised the Turing Test, a way to decide the question of whether an electronic machine might be able to think. A machine might be said to pass the test if through a series of written questions and answers through a blind channel, a human would think that he or she was communicating with another human being. This has set the standard for much of the debate over artificial intelligence.
Machines that may pass the Turing Test are on the horizon. Much is now being written about the development of machines that can learn and even read emotions -- affective computing -- by working through big data using sophisticated algorithms, running many iterations with pattern recognition. The machines essentially construct elaborate maps of patterns that emerge through analyzing huge sets of data by trying all paths but increasingly using the ones that lead to useful answers, a kind of binary evolution. This form of machine "intelligence" is already being used on iPhones to determine what you might like to type, by Google to direct your search as you consider where to go and by the NSA to pick through the ever-expanding data haystacks for those "golden" needles. Companies are eager to use affective computing to read your face, body language and physical state (via iWatch and other connected sensors) -- and therefore your emotions -- as you socialize and consume via the Web.
All this also raises the very real possibility that soon, we might be able to talk with a robot able to read our verbal and non-verbal, internal and external information and convince us that even though we can see it is a machine, it is acting human. It would pass a Turing Test squared.
Leaving aside the possibility that such machines might also be able to read us without our knowing, this raises the question of whether such machines would indeed be thinking actors perhaps deserving the attribution of being considered conscious. Would a machine able to meet the Turing Test -- including by "understanding" what we say, how we feel and also being able to respond in a fully appropriate and meaningful way-- be alive? Human? Or to flip the question, are we, essentially, anything more than an evolutionarily elaborated biological device trained through life experience -- iterative learning -- and thus able ourselves to meet the Turing Test and nothing more?
Put more simply, can true understanding be reduced to even extremely complex patterns and decision algorithms stored and processed in massive memory? Is a machine that "understands" in this way still just a very sophisticated hunk of metal or has some sort of "soul" been engendered in the complex workings of advanced electronics? There are those who see consciousness as indeed just such an emergent property of the physical world. The only other alternative seems to be some variant of the ghost in the machine. Beyond this is perhaps the ultimate question of what exactly distinguishes life from non-life? Can only things alive be said to truly think and feel? Is it only a living creature that can be an agent with its own subjectivity? I suspect so. But the time may be coming for us to add to the Turing Test some way to measure that very property, which might also be called consciousness or just soul.