Happy Birthday, Alan Turing!


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jun 23, 2012 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

June 23rd, 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Alan Turnings' birthday. Particularly on this day we might reflect on the triumphs of this man.

Alan Turing is considered by many to be the “father of computer science” and “the father of artificial intelligence”. I have purposely separated the two concepts, because even one of them might be considered a “life work” for most people. Today we look back on them and take the concepts for granted, but in those days there were a lot of people who laughed at the concept that a machine could be controlled by numbers that were self-generated, and that machines might be able to be consciously aware.

Developing two such concepts in such a short lifetime is truly remarkable, particularly since there was no “world wide web” to discuss these ideas with other people, and no “word processor” to type up the papers. Logic circuits were created with relays and gears, and “calculating machines” weighed tons. To dream of “artificial intelligence” was a feat of “science fiction” (a literature style, by the way, that was still being defined at the time). Like Einstein and Michelangelo before him, many of Alan Turing's ideas were created from “pure thought”.

More than this, Turing is credited with helping to break the Enigma code used by the Germans during World War II, to the extent that if Alan Turing had not lent his skills to the effort, some codes might have gone unbroken, or the effort would have not been as successful, and the war might have a completely different ending.

At Bletchley Park, where Turing and thousands of other people worked in complete secrecy, the German codes were received, evaluated, decrypted and acted on. It was at Bletchley Park that the first electronic digital computer, the Colossus, was invented, years before the ENIAC of the University of Pennsylvania (the computer that, in 1969, I was told was the “first”).

We will, however, forgive the computer historians that existed in the years of my university training for teaching me the wrong history, since Winston Churchill swore all of the people of Bletchley Park to complete secrecy about what they had accomplished. Churchill had all the machines destroyed, as well as the records and plans for building them.

In the age of Wikileaks and “anonymous sources” it is hard for us to fathom that so many people (over 12000) kept a secret for so long, but it was not until 1974 that the story of Bletchley Park started to emerge.

1974 was too late to help one person, however. In 1952 Alan Turing was still working on developing concepts of computers and cryptology. In January of 1952 he had a same-sex relationship that resulted in a robbery of goods his home, but instead of arresting just the person who stole the goods, the police arrested both that man and Turing for having a “homosexual act” and found them guilty of “gross indecency”. The “solution” for this “crime” was chemical castration for Alan Turing, and the loss of Turings' security clearance.

Two years later, despondent over the physical effects of the hormones used in the punishment, and the loss of his security clearance and work, Alan Turing committed suicide at the age of 41.  There are arguments that the death was accidental or even murder, but the general acceptance is that Turing committed suicide.

Much discussion has occurred since that time regarding Alan Turing's death and the results of this law and its consequences. Of course the law has since been removed from the books in Great Britain, and there is even talk of allowing same-sex couples to have civil marriages in the United Kingdom.

What would Alan Turing's contributions have been if he had been allowed to find a suitable partner, have a happy family life, retained his security clearance, and lived to a much older age? Other computer pioneers of the time (Maurice Wilkes, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper and others) made contributions well into their nineties.

What if Alan Turing had simply broken his promise to his country and said:

“I am a war hero that helped to break the German Enigma codes...and by the way, I helped to define modern day computers, and we built a few of these at this place called 'Bletchley Park' while other people received the credit.”

Alan Turing did not do that. Instead he quietly took punishment for something that was not his fault, his homosexuality, and this led to his death.

In 2009, the government of his country, Great Britain, that owed him so much, offered an official apology to him, for one “who deserved so much better”, and 2012 has been declared “The Alan Turing Year”, with many celebrations of his life and work. We were lucky to have had the benefit of his work.

However, while we celebrate his work it seems we still have to learn a lot about his life.

Today in many countries around the world Turing still would not be allowed to find happiness in a marriage partner, in others he would simply be put to death for his homosexuality.

In some enlightened countries he might be welcomed as an equal (at least under the law of the government) and allowed to live a happy life, even if a portion of the population still muttered “FAG” under their breath.

There is another path on this, however....an “alternate universe”.  Let's follow that path...

In our universe Alan Turing developed his first major work just after graduating from Kings' College, Cambridge. He developed the concept of the “Turing Machine” in 1936, when he was only 24. Turing certainly knew that he was homosexual at the time, and had even had a strong relationship with a fellow male student at a school a few years earlier.

In an alternate universe perhaps Turing had his “grossly indecent” sexual encounter when he was 22, was never allowed to work on cryptology at Bletchley Park...perhaps under the British form of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”, and was drummed out of the service because of his homosexuality.

In our universe in 1941 Turing had proposed marriage to a woman co-worker, but after admitting his homosexuality to her, he decided he could not go through with the marriage. What if, in that alternate universe and at that time, Alan Turing had been declared “unfit for duty”?

What if Turing had never written his works on “Turing machines”? Would that alternate universe still be using plug-boards and paper tapes to control these large “calculators”?

What if Turing had a room-mate at King's College who decided to invade Turing's privacy, “out” Turing and embarrass him to the point that he committed suicide at the age of 22? What penalty for those losses might the world expect, in THAT universe?

Our universe is in really bad shape. Despite the advances in communication and productivity we still have hatred and violence, poverty and disease. We can not afford to overlook the contributions that could be made by people who are different than us, no matter what their political makeup, their sex, their age, their skin color, their sexuality, their body size, physical condition or their religion.

We have to accept that there are people different from us and that even if those people are small in numbers, their contributions to all can be immense.

I believe in Free and Open Source Software because I believe that with it and the Internet we can find the next Alan Turing, and I am not so egotistical to think that they will be a white, Anglo-Saxon, well-built, beautiful male homosexual...or even bi-sexual.

The next “Alan Turing” might even be heterosexual....but I can live with that.

In the name of Alan Turing on the anniversary of his 100th birthday:

Carpe Diem!

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