Intelligent? The computer says no.

Last week a modern PC was able to beat the rebuilt Colossus machine of the 1940s to decipher an encoded German message. Doesn’t this show how good modern technology is compared to what was available in the 1940s!

It’s rather like pitting a Le Mans winning 1950s Jaguar C-type against a modern hot-hatch. The hatchback benefits from over half a century more of automotive engineering. So to does the modern PC, in terms of advancements in IT.

At the time the cogs were turning in Colossus at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing was inventing computer science. In 1950, Turing wrote a paper, titled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which presented a simple test that could be used to determine if a machine exhibited intelligence. It tested if a person could tell the difference between a written conversation with a human being in another room and one where the other participant was a machine.

No computer has yet completed the Turing test successfully, and perhaps this would have been a better test of a modern PC’s abilities. Unlike humans, computers can’t think laterally, unless they have somehow been told how or have “learnt” to associate certain events with actions they need to take.

This came to light earlier this week when I had to go for an annual health check-up. The automatically produced letter I received alerting me of the hospital appointment, had in fact booked me in at a clinic I had never been to before. Nor did I have any idea where it was located.

The computer had chosen this particular clinic because it was closer, according to the receptionist at the clinic. Closer for who? I needed two trains and then walked 15 minutes using the GPS to get there compared to one bus and no walk. But on Google Map, as the crow flies, it’s definitely closer!

Had the computer taken into account my previous visits, the fact that I live minutes from a major bus route, then maybe it would have made the right decision given my circumstances. But it’s only a machine.

So even today, where technology is touching almost every part of our lives, the computer is basically the same type of machine as Colossus. It just goes quicker.

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