Will Computers Ever Know Everything?
An essay in Science magazine by Andrew Hodges, the dean of Wadham College at Oxford University, suggests that Alan Turing’s greatest contribution was defining the limits of what computers can “know”—that is, what is computable. By formalizing the computability question in 1936, Turing illuminated the deeper issue of what humans could know: Is our knowledge limited in the same way as computers? Or do we have some sort of mental “intuition” (Turing’s word) that supersedes the power of mere machinery?
]Three quarters of a century later, we’re not much closer to an answer. Even in this age of “big data,” where computers churn through gobs of information to come up with cannily humanlike responses, humans are far better at everyday tasks like making sense of a scene. Artificial intelligence remains a dream. Turing’s work on computability led to an even deeper question, according to Hodges: “Does computation with discrete symbols give a complete account of the physical world?” In other words, is the world computable? Can a machine, in principle, rise not just to the intellectual capabilities of human beings, but supersede those capabilities? Can a computer know everything?