Thursday 13 November 2014

Why are we so fascinated by Alan Turing?

The new Benedict Cumberbatch film comes out tomorrow in the UK.  It is called The Imitation Game and it concerns the code-breaking career of Alan Turing, the British candidate for the inventor of computing.  It is also the UK candidate for the next Oscars ceremony.

What I have been wondering is why Turing has become such a compelling figure in our recent past - and, at the age of 102 if he had lived, he might even have still been alive.

When I first began writing about him, when I was writing my book Authenticity, Turing was a half-forgotten, fringe figure.  Now he is a symbolic martyr who helped create the modern world.  In between, something happened.

There are three possible ways of thinking of this. There was his prosecution for homosexuality and subsequent suicide (and it almost certainly was suicide, as I explain in my book Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma). With the issue of sexual tolerance right at the top of everyone's radars these days, this makes him something of a martyr - enough to be given an official pardon last year.

As I explained in the book, the suicide was most probably not directly to do with the prosecution, and more likely to be linked to hounding by the security services, but actually we can't know.

The other way of thinking about his importance as a figure is that he was such a pioneer of virtuality, and as such a co-creator of the IT revolution. He conceptualised computers and then brought them into existence to crack the Nazi codes.

Finally, Turing was a contradictory personality who strongly believed that machines could think and feel - the founder, in that respect, of the Turing Test. He was in this respect another pioneer of tolerance - he believed, not so much that his computers should be given rights, but that they should be given the benefit of the doubt.

It is never entirely comfortable when a complex human being becomes a symbol of things beyond themselves. Turing has become a symbol for the modern world, as a prophet of IT and scientific rationality, a martyr for gay rights, and also of genius cramped by convention and intolerance.

He would have found none of these entirely comfortable. He is portrayed sometimes as a social misfit, somewhere on the autistic spectrum – in fact he was a witty and entertaining friend. He enjoyed Snow White and had a particular fascination for fairy tales. He was, in fact, a far more rounded figure than he is given credit for being, as the new film portrays him.

As for the symbolism of the apple, it is a bizarre twist of the modern world that Turing’s fatal apple (poisoned with cyanide) is sometimes given the credit for being the original for the logo which now graces Apple computers – as if the apple of the tree of knowledge was somehow inadequate to the task.

In fact, the Apple logo’s designer Rob Janoff denies that he had even Adam and Eve in mind when he penned his first draft. He put the bite in, not as a tribute to Turing, but to emphasise scale and to show this was not a picture of a cherry.

What seems to underpin our fascination with him is that he was a pioneer of the modern world, and perhaps of tolerance to people who approach the world more like a computer would - as perhaps he did.

The Turing Test never claimed to be able to verify anything metaphysical, but that is where the debate is going.

 It is a debate about authenticity, which asserts or denies that there are attributes which are uniquely human, not so much conventional intelligence, but love, care and generosity. Turing believed that intuition was computable. Even if a computer passes his test, we won’t know if he was right or not.

Turing was wrong about his predictions: he expected his test to have been passed by now. But we are now in thrall to computers in ways that might have surprised him: in practice, the closer to human intelligence the robot who phones us up can be, the more unnerving the experience – and, for the time being, the more frustrating, because of the inability of IT to deal with human complexity in the ways that Turing predicted.

If the corporate world wants to replace teachers and doctors with screens and software, because it is cheaper, it is not always obvious which side Turing – a great humanist – would have been on.

I like to think he would have been on the side of humanity again, but who knows.  Find out more in my ebook Alan Turing: Understanding the Enigma.

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1 comment:

Phil Beesley said...

Alan Turing's recognition has much to do with Manchester University's computer laboratory. Into the 1990s, academics knew that if they couldn't run a program locally, they could run it at Manchester. Wider availability of high performance computers diminished Manchester's significance, but old farts remembered Turing.

Regarding Apple Computer Company, adverts for their first model show Isaac Newton sitting underneath a tree.