How he came to define what this agency is, was brutally cut short. However it’s clear from his work on morphogenesis (which Turing began at the same time as his theoretical forays into machinic thought) that some preliminary form of complexity theory was the way forward. It certainly undermines the positivist wing of artificial intelligence research which invests in some predictable form of knowledge where machinic intelligence can only be ‘known in advance’ when it passes for sentience. Do real world formal language systems already contain the type of surprising ambivalence which Turing noticed? Furthermore, do machines experience this level of ambivalence between each other themselves? This is a question which the transparency of analytic rigour and scientific provability would remove for being undisciplined. Turing’s own words suggest otherwise.
In a subsequent lecture broadcast on BBC Radio in May 1951 called “Can Digital Computers Think?”, Turing elaborates on this further using some exquisite metaphors and analogies;
“It is not difficult to design machines whose behaviour appears quite random to anyone who does not know the details of their construction. Naturally enough the inclusion of this random element, whichever technique is used, does not solve our main problem, how to programme a machine to imitate a brain, or as we might say more briefly, if less accurately, to think. But it gives us some indication of what the process will be like. We must not always expect to know what the computer is going to do. We should be pleased when the machine surprises us, in rather the same way as one is pleased when a pupil does something which he had not been explicitly taught to do.”
We have here, in the pangs of its birth, a self-confessed weird quality to the construction of computing in its preliminary stages. It’s this otherness, notably absurd quality to the agency of computing which the humanities (and especially the digital arts) could re-appropriate for it’s own unpredictable ends.
And to some extent this hardly exists as new territory for practising artists who began working with early structural computing systems from the late 1960s - the surprising reality of deterministic rules. I’m sure many artists and programmers, especially those who constantly negotiate their way through complex compilers, stack libraries, code, bugs, glitches and information loss, testify to the same surprises that Turing experienced. For it was Turing who originally suggested that writing and mechanism were almost synonymous.