Computing machinery, surprise and originality

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Lady Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine (1843) never refer to the concept of surprise. Having some pretension to ‘originate’ something—unlike the Analytical Engine—is neither necessary nor sufficient to being able to surprise someone. Turing nevertheless translates Lovelace’s ‘this machine is incapable of originating something’ in terms of a hypothetical ‘computers cannot take us by surprise’ objection to the idea that machines may be deemed capable of thinking. To understand the contemporary significance of what is missed in Turing’s ‘surprise’ translation of Lovelace’s insight, one needs to distinguish between trivial surprises (which stem from our limited ability to store data and process it) and those events, propositions or encounters that lead us to question our understanding of ourselves or what surrounds us. Only some of these non-trivial surprises are the product of originality endeavours. Not only is it uncommon for surprises to track such endeavours, the type of autonomy that would be required on the part of ‘digital computers’ for originality and surprise to intersect in that way goes far beyond the operational autonomy that can be achieved by ‘learning machines’. This paper argues that a salient translation of Lovelace’s originality insight—for contemporary and future ‘learning machines’—is an upside-down version of Turing’s surprise question: can computers be surprised by us in a non-trivial, ‘co-produced’ way?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1195-1211
Number of pages17
JournalPhilosophy and Technology
Issue number4
Early online date21 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research leading to this work was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, as well as a Mozilla research Fellowship.

I am grateful to Chris Baber, Rudolf Bernet, Simon Blackburn, Mireille Hildebrandt, Neil Lawrence, Bence Nanay, Jurgen Van Gael, Michael Veale and Alan Wilson for their helpful comments. I also benefited from excellent feedback from the University of Cambridge CFI seminar, the Birmingham computer science seminar and a presentation at the Bellagio AI Conference.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Turing
  • Lady Lovelace
  • Surprise
  • Originality
  • Interpretive capabilities
  • Hermeneutics
  • AlphaGo

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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