The Imitation Game: A Rare Alan Turing Article at CMU Libraries

Photo of Turing Journal

 'I propose to consider the question, Can machines think?' This sentence opens Alan Turing's paper, ‘"Computing Machinery and Intelligence," a landmark text in the history of computing that approaches the status of a manifesto for artificial intelligence. 
 
Written during a period of breathtaking inventiveness while at the University of Manchester, Turing's paper laid out a thought experiment known today as the Turing Test, but called "The Imitation Game" by its inventor. The Game was simple: a human participant would exchange a series of typed interactions with two respondents, a computer and a human being. Each respondent—one of flesh, the other circuit-bound—remained hidden behind a partition. After a set period of time, if the interrogator failed to distinguish one from the other, the computer would, in effect, win; such a machine could be said to think. 
 
Turing's paper—published 70 years ago this October—anticipated the now commonplace exchanges we have with our own intelligent machines. Even if our devices have not yet risen to human standards of intelligence, they are nevertheless imbued with personalities that give the impression of mindful behavior (Siri's chirpy replies veil code of once-unimaginable complexity). 
 
Just as thrilling as the delayed promise of Turing's imitation game, however, is the fact that Carnegie Mellon University Libraries holds a first-edition copy of Turing's "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," printed in the October, 1950 issue of the academic journal Mind. Until last week, CMU's copy was in circulation, available for request and withdrawal from the Libraries' offsite facility. Rare in its own right, the journal will be transferred to Special Collections, where it will be shelved under secure and climate-controlled conditions and made available for instruction and research. 
 
CMU's copy of Turing's paper was uncovered during work on a remote project that seeks to identify and withdraw copies of rare and important works in the history of computing from the Libraries' circulating collections. So far, the project has flagged approximately 50 titles for transfer to Special Collections, including works by Grace Hopper, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, and Alonso Church. 
 
In coming to Special Collections, Turing's paper joins the Traub-McCorduck Collection—an important assemblage of books and instruments donated in memory of Joseph Traub, a pioneer in information-based complexity and a former head of CMU's School of Computer Science, by his wife Pamela McCorduck, an historian of artificial intelligence and author of a number of books on the subject. The Traub-McCorduck collection contains two Enigma machines—which Turing famously helped decipher—and a number of rare books on mechanical calculation and cryptology. 
 
For more information on Turing's article, or the project that led to its transfer to Special Collections, contact Curator of Special Collections, Sam Lemley.

- Samuel Lemley, Curator of Special Collections

Credit: Image courtesy of Sophia Rare Books, Copenhagen, Denmark