Turing on being ‘taken by surprise’

Writing in an article entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950:

A variant of Lady Lovelace’s objection states that a machine can ‘never do anything really new’. This may be parried for a moment with the saw, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’. Who can be certain that ‘original work’ that he has done was not simply the growth of the seed planted in him by teaching, or the effect of following well-known general principles. A better variant of the objection says that a machine can never ‘take us by surprise’. This statement is a more direct challenge and can be met directly. Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. This is largely because I do not do sufficient calculation to decide what to expect them to do, or rather because, although I do a calculation, I do it in a hurried, slipshod fashion, taking risks. Perhaps I say to myself, ‘I suppose the voltage here ought to be the same as there: anyway let’s assume it is.’ Naturally I am often wrong, and the result is a surprise for me for by the time the experiment is done these assumptions have been forgotten. These admissions lay me open to lectures on the subject of my vicious ways, but do not throw any doubt on my credibility when I testify to the surprises I experience.
The view that machines cannot give rise to surprises is due, I believe, to a fallacy to which philosophers and mathematicians are particularly subject. This is the assumption that as soon as a fact is presented to a mind all consequences of that fact spring into the mind simultaneously with it. It is a very useful assumption under many circumstances, but one too easily forgets that it is false. A natural consequence of doing so is that one then assumes that there is no virtue in the mere working out of consequences from data and general principles.

from The Essential Turing, Copeland, pp. 455-456

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  1. Olivier


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