Soon after the first UNIVAC was built in the 1950s, a popular joke making the rounds told of scientists turning on the great computer for the first time and asking it the question, “Is there a God?” The machine hummed away, lights blinked, relays clicked, time passed and the answer emerged on a paper tape slowly unreeled out of a slot. It read, “There is one now.”
Well, the notion of God in a machine as farfetched today as was back then, but the anxiety that underlies the joke is still very much with us today. But instead of a machine, the object of our anxiety is the Web, and increasingly Google, an information company that is touching our lives like no other in the history of the information revolution. In fact Google seems less like a company than a quirky new info-religion, complete with canons (“Do no evil”) and a sweeping near-messianic mission to “organize all the world’s information.”
Now, organizing the world’s information is a lofty goal, but there is an even more ambitious goal to be tackled: creation of a system that passes the “Turing Test.” Alan Turing’s famous 1950 proposal for judging whether a machine was intelligent or not. At its simplest, a machine passes the Turing Test when a natural language conversation with it is indistinguishable from a conversation with another human. Purists will quibble, but a machine that can pass the Turing Test would presumably be intelligent.
This doesn’t sound like a big hurdle, but the Turing Test hasn’t been passed yet. In fact, there is an open bet between Ray Kurzweil and Mitch Kapor whether the Turing Test will have been satisfied by 2029. I won’t take sides, but I’d be surprised if more than a few engineers at Google weren’t devoting some of their discretionary time towards this goal. Or perhaps an intelligence will arise not by design, but by accident, an incidental bit of emergent, self-organizing happenstance that suddenly announces its presence to startled web-users.
I still doubt god will appear in a machine or even the web, but I wonder whether something might emerge that wonders about God, or at least can hold its end of a conversation about God with the rest of us. Perhaps the 1950s joke is really on us, but you can bet on one thing; if a machine consciousness should emerge, the first place it will visit to discover more about its world will, like the rest of us, be Google.com.
(illustration: detail from the cover of Time Mazazine, January 23, 1951 of the Aiken Mark III, an electromechanical computer built for the US Navy)