Turing’s Oracle and its descendants

In his doctoral thesis at Cambridge in the 1930’s Alan Turing envisaged ‘an oracle machine’ as he then called it which would, in his words, figure out ‘how far it is possible to eliminate intuition and leave only ingenuity’. Subsequent ingenious machines that have led on from his own have shown that it is very possible. The early pioneers who sought to develop ‘machines that can think’ tried to mimic the operations of the human brain. The more that was discovered about the brain the easier it would become. But the opposite has proved to be the case. The operations of the brain are so enigmatic it is exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible, for computers to replicate them. So instead these early pioneers of the cyber world turned to what computers are good at, remembering data, mind-boggling quantities of it. By substituting ingenuity for intuition, and proceeding along paths quite different from those of the brain computers were able to come to the same conclusions as an intelligent person might, and indeed do far better.

The first breath taking episode in which computers demonstrated their astonishing prowess to beat brains at their own game was when Deep Blue conquered Gary Kasparov. The computer was not only able to foresee as many future moves that would lead to check mate as the leading chess player in the world could, it was able to retrieve and analyse every possibly possible chain of moves. Beat that Kasparov! Even more spectacular was the event that occurred a few years later when Watson, as IBM fondly called its extraordinary new machine, beat human competitors on TV at Jeopardy! Jeopardy! is a quiz game in which competitors can be asked anything on any subject. Watson was up to it. Trawling through billions of items of data in seconds it came up with the answers far faster than the humans could.

This wasn’t intuition, it wasn’t ‘seeing the answer’, it was breaking up the subject for analysis into tiny fragments, assigning each fragment a number, and trawling through vast oceans of data until a match was found. But it was very, very effective, so it was hardly surprising that commerce took up Watson and his proliferating relatives with enthusiasm. This was nowhere more so than in the world of banking. Computers mindlessly following pre-programmed algorithms sucked up huge quantities of data from vast prairies of investment opportunities, analysed them in seconds, found targets that would yield minutely better yields than others and made the trades in fractions of a second. The sharp boys with ‘a nose for the market’ now became simple tenders of the cows that provided them with milk. And what creamy milk. The banks made millions.

They then extended the technique to sub-prime mortgages. By gathering data on clients who by definition were highly likely to default computers could sniff out those individual cases least likely to repay their loans and those in categories that just possibly might. The latter class were ripe for lending but to make quite sure the computerized banks sliced up the sub-primes into wafer thin risks which were then distributed between banks. If a client did default, then any one bank would lose so little they would hardly notice it. It was Turin’s ingenuity come of age. There was only one problem though, which the computers did not recognize but any human with even an average intelligent brain would see at once. If there was an economic downturn, of which the history of economics is full, and large numbers of sub-prime borrowers all defaulted at the same time, the whole system would come crashing to the ground. The banks must have seen it coming. But so intricately interconnected was the mesh in which the computers had entangled them, they could not extricate themselves from the lemming rush over the precipice.

2008 is a minatory gallows at the cross roads. But many other aspects of modern life as well are beholden to the data-crunching lack of intuition in which computers specialize. Whole military campaigns are grounded if the computers are down. Cyber terrorists could bring a whole nation to a standstill by disabling its electricity supply. Perhaps old-fashioned intuition has its place after all. We should be warned.


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