Written By: - Date published: 4:26 pm, July 23rd, 2013 - 51 comments
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A pardon for the gross abuse of Alan Turing is long overdue. He made a major contribution to computer science. However, it’s also interesting to see some of the headlines about the UK government is prepared to support a backbench Bill aimed at pardoning Turing. It focuses on his role in breaking the Enigma Code during World War II, but he was so much more:
Friday’s headline in the UK Guardian is “Enigma code breaker Alan Turing to be given posthumous pardon”. [h/t joe90]
Alan Turing, the Enigma codebreaker who took his own life after being convicted of gross indecency under anti-homosexuality legislation, is to be given a posthumous pardon.
The announcement marks a change of heart by the government, which declined last year to grant pardons to the 49,000 gay men, now dead, who were convicted under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. They include Oscar Wilde.
Turing broke German ciphers using the bombe method, which allowed the code-breakers to crack the German Enigma code. His colleague Tommy Flowers built the Colossus computer. Ahmad described Turing as “one of the fathers, if not the father, of computer science”.
The legacy of his maths and computing are still with us, and he should at least be as equally remembered for that as for breaking the Enigma Code. There’s been a website (by biographer Andrew Hodges) and a musical dedicated to him and his life. The Guardian article on the musical says this:
Turing’s story has already been told in Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, but this musical version is much more than a coda as it pits Turing’s idea of machines that can think against the question: what does it mean to be human?
About the first thing I heard about Turing was the Turing Test, aimed at assessing if a computer was able to “think”.
Turing addressed the problem of artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment which became known as the Turing test, an attempt to define a standard for a machine to be called “intelligent”. The idea was that a computer could be said to “think” if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human being. In the paper, Turing suggested that rather than building a program to simulate the adult mind, it would be better rather to produce a simpler one to simulate a child’s mind and then to subject it to a course of education. A reversed form of the Turing test is widely used on the Internet; the CAPTCHA test is intended to determine whether the user is a human or a computer.
It sometimes seems like some TS “trolls” would not be able to pass a Turing Test. Exchanges with them seem like talking to Eliza.
Given that Turing’s private life was treated in such an inhumane way, I wonder what Turing would have thought about state agencies’ involvement in intrusive digital surveillance in the 21st century?
Curiously there are apparently no US or UK government surveillance files on Turing. Others have written that, once his sexuality was known, Turing was under constant police surveillance, and was considered to be a security risk. Attracted by stories of gay male dances in Scandinavia, Turing traveled there and met a Norwegian man, Kjell,
after whom he would name one of his final computer programs.
Kjell arrived in Newcastle, England, when,
… since his conviction of Gross Indecency in 1952 (see Part One) Turing had been under police surveillance, with officers posted outside his home. In this context, the arrival of a foreign visitor was viewed as a potential security leak, and officers were deployed all over the North of England to intercept Kjell. At this point in his life, Turing’s accomplishments had become more of a burden than an asset, as his knowledge of the British nuclear program made him a high security risk. As such his movements and activities were closely monitored, and his relationship with the police (“the poor sweeties,” as he called them) were increasingly frayed. Yet despite being deprived further access to government resources, and despite increasing surveillance and police suspicion, Turing seems to have continued working on a set of experimental ideas that, apart from a few allusions in letters to Gandy and others, are entirely lost.
Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?
Computing technologies contribute much that is good to the modern world, but it is their potential to support, not undermine, democracy that we should always try to remember and celebrate.
Turing’s life story provides much to celebrate, as well as a cautionary tale:
No to John Key’s GCSB and related surveillance Bills – a charter for abuse of privacy and democracy!