Machines, minds and computers
Machines, minds and computers

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Machines, minds and computers


The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do.

B. F. Skinner, Contingencies of Reinforcement (1969)

In this course I want to offer you a panoramic view of the intellectual background to the ideas we're going to cover. There are four principal sections – 'Machines', 'Minds', 'AI' and 'Computers' – framed by this introduction and some conclusions and reflections.

Briefly, this is the ground I want to cover:

  • Machines – In this section we'll look at the history of humanity's engagement with machine technologies and at our dream of building machines that share our special human features and powers – particularly our mental abilities.
  • Minds – Here, we'll explore the development of the idea that human thought might be a form of computation, from its origins in the 17th century, through the advent of the digital computer in the 20th, and into the Cybernetics and Symbolic AI movements of the recent past and the present.
  • AI – In this section we'll examine the birth and intellectual foundations of Symbolic AI and contrast it with the Cybernetic approach. We will also look at the distinction between strong and weak artificial intelligence.
  • Computers – Almost all of us have some experience of working with computers. Most of us probably feel confident we know what they are, and what they can do. In this section we'll examine the fundamental concept of the digital computer as an interpreted automatic formal system and consider the implications of this for computational theories of mind.

At the end, I'll try to draw some conclusions and set the scene for the course ahead. Some of the material in the course is historical, some technical – all of it is relevant to the theme of this course: humanity's quest to build intelligent machines.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 3 study in Computing & ICT [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371