Tag Archives: Alan Turing

New Fiction: Skinner’s Quests

A new novel, by Richard Gilbert, offers of fictionalized account of what might have happened had B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud met. Skinner’s Quests is described as follows:

Two of the best known psychologists of the twentieth century, B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, never met. What if they had met? What if, as well, the young B.F. Skinner had discussed matters of mutual interest with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the century’s best known and most eccentric philosopher, also living in England in 1939?

Skinner’s Quests, a novel of ideas and relationships, describes a fictional trip to England by Skinner in May and June 1939. He traveled from his home in Minneapolis to London and Cambridge via Montreal and Glasgow. He returned via Lisbon and New York.

Skinner had two quests. Both were conceived by philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell, then at the University of Chicago. Both were to do with Russell’s former student Ludwig Wittgenstein – already the 20th century’s preeminent philosopher.

One quest was to correct what Russell regarded as Wittgenstein’s futile flirtation with behaviorism. (Russell had misunderstood Skinner’s position.)

The other quest, in collaboration with the White House, was to exploit Wittgenstein’s association with Adolf Hitler. The two were born a few days apart and were at high school together. Moreover, in 1939 Wittgenstein was involved with the German government, negotiating exemptions for his family from the Nuremburg (Race) Laws. He was also pally with the Soviet government.

Skinner had little interest in Wittgenstein. He welcomed the trip – over the strong objections of his wife – for a chance to meet Sigmund Freud, who was dying in London. Skinner was an admirer of Freud’s writings, even though he disagreed with much of what the founder of psychoanalysis had to say. Skinner met Freud, and Freud’s daughter Anna. In Cambridge, Skinner met Alan Turing as well as Wittgenstein. This was just after Turing had devised the modern computer and before he become a key figure in British cryptanalysis.

During the odyssey, Skinner met with other real and several fictional characters. Some of his encounters were romantic. Some were merely social. Some had a sinister edge that reflected the time of his travels, made during one of modern history’s most fraught periods.

Skinner’s odyssey had mixed success. He had little apparent impact on Wittgenstein, but he clarified his own thinking about several matters and provided information of possible value to the White House. Early in his odyssey, Skinner had visions of being the Darwin of the twentieth century, doing for psychology what Darwin had done for biology in the nineteenth century. Freud cautioned Skinner that his disregard for free will could become associated with totalitarianism. Skinner let the matter rest, at least for the moment.

The book will appeal to readers interested in some or all of these topics: psychology, philosophy, language, evolution, transportation in the 1930s, and the politics of North America and Europe just before the Second World War.

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Go Ask A.L.I.C.E. – A Look Back at A. I.

Go Ask A.L.I.C.E. Panel Discussion @ Harvard from Harvard University, History/CHSI on Vimeo.

On November 29th, 2012 the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (CHSI) at Harvard University held panel discussion to coincide with its museum exhibit, GO ASK A.L.I.C.E: Turing Tests, Parlor Games, & Chatterbots. The exhibit, which closed at the end of December and was one of a number of events organized to mark the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, explored

… the strange afterlife of the Turing Test as it has circulated in popular, scientific, and commercial cultures. It reexamines elements of Turing’s own interactions with humans and machines, later imaginations of thinking machines, as well as a famous attempt to translate Turing’s parlor game into a real test of artificial intelligence: the Loebner Competition.

These issues were further explored in the GO ASK A.L.I.C.E. panel discussion, video of which is posted above. Among those who participated in this event Daniel C. Dennett (Tufts University), Fox Harrell (MIT), John Searle (UC Berkeley), Peter Galison (Harvard), Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard) and Sophia Roosth (Harvard). Video of the event can also be found here.

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2012: The Year of Alan Turing

In recognition of the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing‘s birth, 2012 has been declared Alan Turing Year. Centenary celebrations of Turing’s life and work are well underway and will continue throughout 2012 at locations around the world. Turing, a mathematician, logician, and early computer scientist, is probably best known within the history of psychology for his proposal of what has come to be known as the Turing Test. The test proposes that a machine may only be considered truly intelligent if, in the course of a conversation, a human judge can not tell it apart from another human being. It has become a something of a standard within the field of artificial intelligence, in which Turing was a pioneer.

The tragic end of Turing’s life is also well-known. After serving as a codebreaker for the British military in World War Two, Turing was prosecuted by the British government for engaging in homosexual acts and submitted to chemical castration. In 1954, at the age of 41, he died from cyanide poisoning in what was apparently suicide. In 2009, British government issued an official apology for the treatment Turing received.

Full details on the various events to be held in 2012 in celebration of Turing’s life and work can be found here.

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