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Humanist Archives: Aug. 20, 2021, 8 a.m. Humanist 35.195 - Turing's shadow and foretaste?

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 195.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2021-08-19 12:45:40+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: a shadow and a foretaste

Some here will already know about the image of Alan Turing on the
new British £50 note. It bears Turing's words quoted from an article 
in The Times (London), 11 June 1949, in a series entitled "The 
Mechanical Brain" (a commonplace term for the computer in Britain 
in the first few decades of its existence). The quotation is just the first 
sentence from the following as it appeared in The Times:

> This is on1y a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of
> what is going to be. We have to have some experience with the machine
> before we really know its capabilities. It may take years before we
> settle down to the new possibilities, but I do not see why it should
> not enter any one of the fields normally covered by the human
> intellect, and eventually compete on equal terms.
> I do not think you can even draw the line about sonnets, though the
> comparison is a little bit unfair because a sonnet written by a
> machine will be better appreciated by another machine.

For more see Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (2014/1983), 
pp. 510-11. Note the last sentence as well as the first.

This was at a time when the machine most of us give little thought to
was an object of excitement, mystery and foreboding. The digital 
machine and its immediate electro-mechanical predecessors were,
as we've heard many times, very large, "giant brains" (a commonplace
term in the U.S. The digital machine was the object of much speculation 
and, esp in the popular media, an evocative provocation to think of it in 
anthropomorphic but dazzlingly superhuman, competitive terms, at one 
moment amplifying the human mind to "unimaginable proportions" 
(NYT 18/11/1949), at another a "'Brain' [that] outstrips man's" by 
calculating "12,000 faster" (or 100,000 times in one account),
remembering far more than humanly possible with its "elephant 
memory" (Popular Science Monthly (November 1949). And so on. My 
favourite is British experimental psychologist Stuart Sutherland's article, 
"The day the computers inherit the earth" (Globe and Mail, 12 April 1967), 
which states the apocalyptic as simple certainty. Those with the time to 
take a look may find Sutherland's autobiographical Breakdown (1977) 

Now return to Turing's words on the £50 banknote: "This is on1y a
foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to
be." My question is this: what do you hear in that quoted sentence? Does
it not sound deliberately allusive? We know Turing could be mischievous.


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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