Thinking machines

I’ve always been interested in what people have to say on the subject of thinking machines and thought I’d share a couple of my favourite quotations. The first is from the late Dutch computer scientist, Edsger Dijkstra:

The European mind (…) considers the question whether machines can think as relevant as the question whether submarines can swim. (1986, p.10)

Based on the context of the talk from which it is taken (source in the references below), it seems he was trying to say that Europeans perceive a greater difference between humans and machines than do Americans. Curiously enough, I’ve only ever heard the quotation used to emphasise the point that questions about thinking, especially where machines are concerned, are semantic inventions to be avoided if at all possible. Whilst the latter interpretation is not an opinion I share, it is, I believe, a much more interesting use of the analogy.

The second quotation is attributable to the psychologist, Bhurrus Skinner. It succinctly captures one of the central motivating factors behind Skinner’s philosophy of behavioural research.

The real question is not whether machines think, but whether men do. The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.“ (1969, p.288)


Dijkstra, E. W. (1986). Science fiction and science reality in computing. Unpublished talk.

Skinner, B. F. (1969). Contingencies of Reinforcement. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


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