Alan Turing was involved in some of the most important developments of the twentieth century: he invented the abstraction now called the Universal Turing Machine that every undergraduate computer science major learns in college; he was involved in the great British Enigma code-breaking effort that deserves at least some credit for the Allied victory in World War II, and last, but not the least, while working on building early digital computers post-Enigma, he described — in a fascinating philosophical paper that continues to puzzle and excite to this day — the thing we now call the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. His career was ultimately cut short, however, after he was convicted in Britain of “gross indecency” (in effect for being gay), and two years later was found dead in an apparent suicide.
The celebrations of Turing’s birth centenary began three years ago in 2012. As a result, far, far more people now know about him than perhaps ever before. 2014 was probably the climax, since nothing is as consecrating as having an A-list Hollywood movie based on your life: a film with big-name actors that garners cultural prestige, decent press, and of course, an Academy Award. I highly recommend Christian Caryl’s review of the The Imitation Game (which covers Turing’s work in breaking the Enigma code). The film is so in thrall to the Cult of the Genius that it adopts a strategy not so much of humanizing Turing or giving us a glimpse of his life, but of co-opting the audience into feeling superior to the antediluvian, backward, not to mention homophobic, Establishment (here mostly represented by Tywin Lannister, I’m sorry, Commander Denniston). Every collective achievement, every breakthrough, every strategy, is credited to Turing, and to Turing alone. One scene from the film should give you a flavor of this: as his colleagues potter around trying to work out the Enigma encryption on pieces of paper, Turing, in a separate room all by himself, is shown to be building a Bombe (a massive, complicated, machine!) alone with his bare hands armed with a screwdriver!
The movie embodies a contradiction that one can also find in Turing’s life and work. On one hand, his work was enormously influential after his death: every computer science undergrad learns about the Turing Machine, and the lifetime achievement award of the premier organization of computer scientists is called the Turing Award. But on the other, he was relatively unknown while he lived (relatively being a key word here, since he studied at Cambridge and Princeton and crossed paths with minds ranging from Wittgenstein to John Von Neumann). Perhaps in an effort to change this, the movie (like many of his recent commemorations) goes all out in the opposite direction: it credits Turing with every single collective achievement, from being responsible for the entirety of the British code-breaking effort to inventing the modern computer and computer science. (read more...)