Levels of abstraction and the Turing test

Kybernetes 39 (3):423-440 (2010)
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An important lesson that philosophy can learn from the Turing Test and computer science more generally concerns the careful use of the method of Levels of Abstraction (LoA). In this paper, the method is first briefly summarised. The constituents of the method are “observables”, collected together and moderated by predicates restraining their “behaviour”. The resulting collection of sets of observables is called a “gradient of abstractions” and it formalises the minimum consistency conditions that the chosen abstractions must satisfy. Two useful kinds of gradient of abstraction – disjoint and nested – are identified. It is then argued that in any discrete (as distinct from analogue) domain of discourse, a complex phenomenon may be explicated in terms of simple approximations organised together in a gradient of abstractions. Thus, the method replaces, for discrete disciplines, the differential and integral calculus, which form the basis for understanding the complex analogue phenomena of science and engineering. The result formalises an approach that is rather common in computer science but has hitherto found little application in philosophy. So the philosophical value of the method is demonstrated by showing how making the LoA of discourse explicit can be fruitful for phenomenological and conceptual analysis. To this end, the method is applied to the Turing Test, the concept of agenthood, the definition of emergence, the notion of artificial life, quantum observation and decidable observation. It is hoped that this treatment will promote the use of the method in certain areas of the humanities and especially in philosophy.

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Luciano Floridi
Oxford University


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