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Turing – so much more …

Written By: - Date published: 4:26 pm, July 23rd, 2013 - 52 comments
Categories: accountability, capitalism, internet, Spying, telecommunications - Tags:

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.[79] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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!

52 comments on “Turing – so much more … ”

  1. Bill 1

    Never been altogether comfortable with the assertion that the internet somehow promotes democracy; not saying it doesn’t or can’t; just that I don’t see how it does.

    True, that more information and perspectives are avaliable than was the case in the days before the internet and that some of it is valuable. But how does that lead on into greater democracy? So much information and so many distractions might simply lead to a situation where with so much going on, nobody really knows what is going on.

    True also, that the internet means that (at least sometimes) information can be spread to more people quicker. But how exactly does that, in and of itself, support, promote or encourage democracy? Sure, it might mean that people can converge in one place quickly in support of some greivence/idea. And that’s valuable from one perspective of organising (numbers) But if those gathered are then subjected to the same old top down decision making processes…or even brought together as a result of the same processes, then the obvious counter argument applies – that the internet encourages the basis for authoritarianism.

    Then there is the fact, mentioned often enough here at ‘ts’, that too many people treat their keyboard entries as a substitute for activism – ie, feet on the streets, bodies at face to face meetings/gatherings and networking/socialising/organising.

    At present I’m inclined to view the internet as a somewhat useful tool with definate limitations and a fair few obvious downsides. But maybe I’m missing something really obvious. If I am, I’m more than happy to have it pointed out to me.

    • weka 1.1

      The question then becomes, why has the internet not been more successfully used to promote democracy in the West? I’m tempted to say there is great untapped potential, but I suspect the reasons we aren’t taking better advantage of the useful bits of the internet have less to do with the internet and more to do with the humans.

    • Huginn 1.2

      The internet supports democracy by making politicians more immediately available to their constituents.

      Technologically astute politicians can build broad, engaged and immediately responsive support base eg through twitter. They can ask their support bases to micro-fund them, which reduces the influence of vested interests.

      • Bill 1.2.1

        That’s the ”obvious counter argument” I mentioned in my comment, right there.

      • Colonial Viper 1.2.2

        They can ask their support bases to micro-fund them, which reduces the influence of vested interests.

        Oh yes, look how Obama was successful at that.

    • karol 1.3

      Well, Bill, I didn’t think I was claiming that the Internet or other digital technologies were inherently democratic. If I did think that, why would I be concerned about the way such technologies can be used to suppress democracy?

      I tend to see it as having both democratic and anti-democratic possibilities. I was asking how it could be used more to promote the former.

      I agree – technology is neutral – it’s how people use it.

      Many proclaimed the advent of the printing press as a democratising technology because it would bring knowledge and information to all. Obviously it has been used both democratically and un/anti-democratically.

      • Colonial Viper 1.3.1

        I agree – technology is neutral – it’s how people use it.

        this statement is not true and is reminiscent of the “guns don’t kill people” line of thinking.

        • RJL 1.3.1.1

          I agree, CV.

          Some technology is neutral. Some is just bad.

          Once, I thought that the internet was a good tool for democracy. And a secure, decentralised, accessible method of global communication would perhaps be good tool for democracy.

          Unfortunately, the internet is actually none of these things.

          • McFlock 1.3.1.1.1

            I don’t belive that there is any bad technology.

            Just technology (like guns and chemical warfare factories) that shold be restricted from personal or even state use, because some people are morons and others are dicks, and some are a glorious combination of the two. But advanced rifle manufacturing might be useful for something good one day. Mortars are used to create controlled avalanches, for example.

            • RJL 1.3.1.1.1.1

              Triggering avalanches with explosives may be good, but that doesn’t make mortars netural.

              Chemical weapons manufacturing is never good, despite the fact that chemical manufacturing might be in some instances.

              A “good” “civilian” technology does not excuse/justify a parallel/similar “bad” “military” technology.

            • Colonial Viper 1.3.1.1.1.2

              There isn’t any “bad” technology, just technology which needs to be banned from use.

              OK. I can live with that. How about banned from being developed in the first place? Like weaponisation of pathogens, or design of fuel air bombs?

        • karol 1.3.1.2

          Hmmm… CV & RJL make good points. I’ll change my earlier statement – maybe it’s better to say there’s positive and negative impacts/potentials from most technologies.

          • Colonial Viper 1.3.1.2.1

            Yep, and that would allow a method to weigh up and assess technologies and their use/development.

      • Bill 1.3.2

        I didn’t think for a moment you suggested the ‘net’ was inherently democratic. Was just picking up on what you say is a potential and extrapolating from that to a generally held and widespread ‘article of faith’ on the democratising effect of the internet…

        All my comment is getting at is that I don’t quite ‘get it’. That and curious as to whether I’m just not seeing something that others do.

        • karol 1.3.2.1

          Well. Then I agree with you. I think maybe that idea that the Net is a democratising platform comes from some of the right wing, entrepreneurial, libertarians?

      • Huginn 1.3.3

        I don’t believe that the technology of the web is neutral. I thinks that it is philosophically invested with the ideas of the people who made it – John Von Neumann in particular. IT embodies an agenda and we need to understand that agenda in order to avoid nasty surprises like the Global Financial Crisis.

        That’s why it’s a good idea to examine the histories that lie at its core

        • karol 1.3.3.1

          I don’t know a lot about Von Neumann. If you do, why aren’t you saying. What do you think that agenda is?

    • Rosetinted 1.4

      Bill
      At least one can put a point of view on the internet such as TS. I have been to meetings where some seasoned time-wasting bigot gets up and natters on, not orating, just repeating his own opinion and calling on some authority to make it seem that his opinion is reliable. He may be known to the person ‘running’ the meeting or that person is sympathetic and there is attempt at proper time control. No-one else has a chance to put up an idea for discussion. Any time left over is spent is discussing points that the long-winded emphasised as important.

      An appearance on the street is important, but so is a chance to discuss things in an ordered way that encourages people to bring forward their own concerns and suggestions, which are then noted for action or further discussion, not just disregarded by the organisers of the meeting if they don’t match their chosen topics or line of reasoning.

      • Bill 1.4.1

        That’s one thing I think the net is good for…the presentation and debating of ideas (depending on the format). But that’s not necessarily got anything to do with democracy…

        • Colonial Viper 1.4.1.1

          And it is a method for undemocratic forces to track and trace both ideas and people. Lessons from the oraganisers of the Arab Spring in various countries: NEVER use Facebook, Twitter etc.

  2. Huginn 2

    It is inconceivable that there are no UK or US government surveillance files on Turing.

    Turing worked at Bletchly Park, the home of the organisation that now calls itself the GCHQ.
    He may have been a lovely old Quean, but have no illusions, Turing was at the core of GCHQ’s project, and by extension that of the GCSB in NZ.

    About 10 years ago when files of that time were automatically declassified, a lot of them were recalled and/or redacted because institutional historians like Philip Mirowski started poking about in them and asking uncomfortable questions.

    http://www.gchq.gov.uk/History/Pages/Bletchley-Park-Post-War.aspx

    • karol 2.1

      He may have been a lovely old Quean, but have no illusions, Turing was at the core of GCHQ’s project, and by extension that of the GCSB in NZ.

      Yes, but both Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden were in the belly of the beast before they perceived it’s dangers and turned on it.

      I was stepping into a hypothetical, wondering how Turing would view today’s debates on surveillance technologies, given his bad experiences on the receiving end of (non-digital) surveillance.

      • Huginn 2.1.1

        Turing not so much in the belly of the beast as in it’s womb, flailing about at the moment of conception.

        Good idea to look at the core histories, though.

        Ask yourself ‘what would have happened if Turing had accepted John Von Neumann’s offer and gone to the US?’

        Or, ‘what was Friedrich Hayek doing at the time and what would he have to say to John Key about the GCSB in particular and about the state’s use of computational methodologies in general?’.

        • karol 2.1.1.1

          But you could also ask why Turing turned down Von Neumann’s invitation? Not comfortable with the culture?

          And if Turing had got involved int he Manhattan project? And had experienced McCarthyism? Oppenheimer didn’t fare too well during that period. The authorities also weren’t that welcoming of gay people.

          What has Hayek got to do with it?

          • RJL 2.1.1.1.1

            I’m not sure why Turing would have been involved in the Manhattan Project?

            Anyway, that got to its outcome without his involvement; how would it have better/worse with Turing involved in it?

            • Colonial Viper 2.1.1.1.1.1

              Brilliant mathematicians always useful in nuclear research projects…but I am guessing he was a loyal member of the british empire…much good that did him.

            • lprent 2.1.1.1.1.2

              There is quite a lot of maths involved in making a A-bomb

            • karol 2.1.1.1.1.3

              The Manhattan Project pulled in experts from a wide range of fields. That was part of the reason for its success in achieving the set goals. It enabled extensive cross-fertilisation between people with differing expertise, leading to innovation – pushing people to think “outside the box”.

              It Von Neumann was involved, why not Turing?

              • RJL

                Yes, the Manhattan project had a theoretical division and there were numerous mathematical problems to solve. But those problems were solved (at least well enough) and the bombs were built. There were plenty of geniuses already involved.

                Perhaps Turing would have helped solve the theoretical problems quicker or differently, but I’m not really sure what difference that would have made.

                Different solutions to some of the theoretical problems may have resulted in a more efficient use of the fissionable material during detonation, but a few kilotonnes here or there makes little practical difference.

                Quicker solutions to some theoretical problems, would still mean that the refining of U235 and the breeding of Pu239 would be the bottlenecks in the construction of the three bombs. It is not apparrent that another genius mathematician would have made much difference to the speed of bomb manufacture. Doubling the 150,000 strong workforce might have made a difference there.

            • karol 2.1.1.1.1.4

              I was thinking more about how Turing would have felt about those sorts of involvement – following Huginn’s suggestions that Turing’s life would have been different if he’d taken up von Neumann’s invitation to the US.

          • Huginn 2.1.1.1.2

            The Manhattan Project was only one of many that Von Neumann was invloved with. I was thinking more of spin-offs from the Eniac Project where he separated ‘data’ from ‘program’, thus inventing ‘software’ as we know it today.
            Or Turing could have hung out with Kurt Gödel at Yale’s Institute for Advanced Study.
            Most of all, I’d like to think that he would have ended his days in California, maybe sitting by a swimming pool waiting for David Hockney to come round.

            I mentioned Hayek because he was also part of the core history of this technology. Hayek was so disturbed by the kind of work that was coming out of Bletchly Park towards the end of the war that he and Michael Polanyi lobbied the post war UK government to end its involvement with Operations Research (another Von Neumann project), and related technologies. Philip Mirowski has suggested that their success in this led to the UK lagging behind the US in the development of the computer which Mirowski believes is closely related to the development of OR.

            Hayek wrote extensively about the state’s use of computational methodologies which he believed to be a very bad thing. It’s one of his issues with Keynes. He’s worth reading now about it because it’s becoming clear that he was right about it.

  3. Santi 3

    He was a genius and true giant of mathematics.. Sexual orientation does not matter and Turing should get the pardon and recognition he deserves.

  4. Rosetinted 4

    It’s all just an excuse to go witch-hunting. Run scary scenarios, rumours to frighten the populace, get them alarmed, as we are already about terrorist threats from religious extremists who have genuine national grievances fuelling thjem.

    The McCarthy scare in the USA after WW2 was one. People were scared and were played on by aspirational politicians appealing to uncertainty about the Soviets and communism and some spies who had leaked information. Those in powerful Rebpublican positions made a Hollywood blacklist ending up with people like Charlie Chaplin having to leave and go to Britain. This was also the reign of the malign Edgar Hoover.

    And the McCarthy thing was a beat-up to raise his political profile and had to be ended by action from the President when McCarthy started to question the defence forces reliability.
    http://www.authentichistory.com/1946-1960/4-cwhomefront/1-mccarthyism/
    On February 9, 1950, at the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joe McCarthy gave his Lincoln Day speech. “I have here in my hand a list of 205–a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” Communists in the State Department represented a potential threat to national security. But McCarthy had no such list. His source was a four-year-old letter, already published in the Congressional Record, from then Secretary of State James Byrnes to a U.S. Congressman.

    On McCarthy dodgy political maneouvring –
    erroneous accusations against his opponent, Robert La Follette, to promote his own campaign. Damaging La Follete’s reputation by claiming he hadn’t enlisted in the military during the war, McCarthy won the election and became Senator.

    http://www.coldwar.org/articles/50s/senatorjosephmccarthy.asp

    As re-election began to loom closer, McCarthy, whose first term was unimpressive, searched for ways to ensure his political success, resorting even to corruption. Edmund Walsh, a close fellow Roman Catholic and anti-communist suggested a crusade against so-called communist subversives. McCarthy enthusiastically agreed and took advantage of the nation’s wave of fanatic terror against communism, and emerged on February 9, 1950, claiming he had a list of 205 people in the State Department who were known members of the American Communist Party. The American public went crazy with the thought of seditious communists living within the United States, and roared for the investigation of the underground agitators. These people on the list were in fact not all communists; some had proven merely to be alcoholics or sexual deviants

    Drew Pearson, a critic who discredited McCarthy’s accusations regularly through columns and radio broadcasts. McCarthy made seven speeches to the Senate on Pearson, which resulted in the loss of sponsors to Pearson’s show. Also, money was then raised to help numerous men sue Pearson, all charges of which he was found innocent and not liable.,,in December of 1954, a censure motion, which is a formal reprimand from a powerful body, was issued condemning his conduct with the vote count at 67 to 22. The media subsequently became disinterested in his communist allegations and McCarthy was virtually stripped of his power. He died in May of 1957 after being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver due to heavy drinking

    Wikipedia reports –

    There were also more subtle forces encouraging the rise of McCarthyism. It had long been a practice of more conservative politicians to refer to progressive reforms such as child labor laws and women’s suffrage as “Communist” or “Red plots.”[7] This tendency increased in the 1930s in reaction to the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Sound familiar?

    • Colonial Viper 4.1

      McCarthy was funded by Republican oil money out of Texas. Connect the dots.

    • Rosetinted 4.2

      I branched off into McCarthy because I was thinking how people can be singled out and scapegoated for being different than the mainstream, ie homosexual. Which was by extension of fearful attitudes seen as subversive I think. And with a little creep right wing power player like McCarthy (McCarthy was also a lawyer, and I am sorry to see how many of these are getting into politics here) the value of being able to point the finger of scorn and shock etc. is a useful tool for a tool.

      And CV says he was funded out of Texas.. Ronald Reagan was keen to finger people as anti-communist in the Hollywood ‘trials’. Bush, and shrub, I suppose both came from that great state so one can see this unattractive trend in USA politics. It can only keep sliding downwards, that’s the trend.

      • Colonial Viper 4.2.1

        McCarthy was seen in Texas so often that he got the nickname “the third Senator from Texas”. (he was actually senator for Wisconsin).

        • yeshe 4.2.1.1

          like Cheney ? Wisconsin folks can’t be pleased .. oh, and they’re not as Cheney’s daughter as we write is trying to overthrow the existing Repug senator in that very same state … and with Jeb Bush in Florida .. ugh.

          And I believe Turing deserves so much more than a pardon. He virtually won the war.

  5. Binders full of women 5

    Sadly Turing almost survived the deadly homophobia…. didn’t he make a flippant remark to a couple of bobbies who were investigating a minor matter and they got suspicious and started the lewd ball rolling?

  6. Murray Olsen 6

    Turing’s impact and memory will outlast the morons who drove him to his death. It was a total obscenity that someone who had save so many of their lives was driven to his death. Unless he said or wrote something, we’ll never know what he thought of the surveillance society. In a very real sense, it’s what we think of it and how we stop it that are more important.

    • karol 6.1

      Although, Turing was interested in “artificial intelligence” and it is technologies with a reasonable amount of “intelligence” that enable the wide spread surveillance of meta-data that are now an issue.

      I’d be interested to know more about what Turing thought of AI.

  7. Sosoo 7

    While I agree with these pardons in principle, I’d be pretty wary of making Turing the poster boy for them, as I remember reading that he allegedly engaged in what we would now label paedophilia at least a couple of times in his life.

    • Colonial Viper 7.1

      If that is factually accurate, its odd (hypocritical?) why PM Cameron would OK a pardon for Turing while simultaneously banning child porn on the internet.

    • karol 7.2

      Yes, he seems to have had a bit of a tendency to hit on (at least) one or two underage teenage boys (under 15yrs).

  8. Sable 8

    Why “pardon” a man who did nothing wrong. Perhaps they would do better to apologise to his family.

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