The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers for Algernon

In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.

The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.

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The Turing Test: Is that Human or Machine?

I propose to consider the following question, ‘Can machines think?’

Thus begins Alan Turing’s paper “Computing machinery and intelligence.”  It’s 1950 England, and the world’s first computer is being used to calculate the next known largest prime number, a feat meant to show off the power of the computer.  For Turing, the implications of this work go much further and spark a philosophical question: could computers one day acquire cognitive abilities rivaling human intelligence?Continue reading