On June 23, Alan Turing would have been 100 years old. The World War II code breaker and founder of computer science didn’t make it to his own centennial, despite his devotion to physical fitness. He committed suicide by poisoned apple in 1954 after being convicted for “acts of gross indecency between two adult men” and chemically castrated as part of a deal to avoid prison.
We are now in the midst of Alan Turing Year, a privately organized worldwide celebration featuring talks, parties, books, and papers. Everywhere, praise of Turing is tempered with anger over the harsh punishment he suffered at the hands of the British state, cutting short a fruitful life.
Turing’s utility as the brains of an important part of the wartime British cryptanalysis operation run out of Bletchley Park kept him on the government’s payroll and out of the hands of the law during the war. He provided the big ideas that helped build the code-cracking Bombe mechanism and keep it up to date, thus rendering German naval messages legible to Allied forces.
Anthony Cave Brown’s 1987 book “C”: The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Menzies, Spymaster to Winston Churchill describes the attitude toward Turing’s known homosexuality in those years: “Since he caused no offence to his colleagues at Bletchley, and since he was perhaps the only man in Menzies’s service who might have been called ‘indispensable,’ his services were retained…Early in 1944 a suspicion arose that he might have been the man responsible for molesting schoolboys at the main public library in Luton, a large industrial town not far from Bletchley. While no proceedings arose, it was decided that the need for good order and discipline required his removal—but not before he had done his finest work.”
If it hadn’t been for his tangible work at Bletchley’s Hut 8, Turing might have been disposed of much sooner. His stunning accomplishments in theoretical realms—the concept of the algorithm, a vision of a computing machine that could follow rules to manipulate symbolic information fed to it on a strip of tape, and a new understanding of the biological processes that cause organisms to develop their shapes—would have been unlikely to win the same leniency.
In March, Britain’s Socialist Worker reviewed a Manchester Museum exhibit focused on Turing’s biological research, concluding that his conviction was “barbarism,” ending “a career that would have led to further brilliant insights into the workings of the natural world.” The same month, columnist Michael Hanlon at the conservative Daily Mail newspaper fumed: “Turing, a logical man after all, probably felt that having done as much as anyone to see off the Kriegsmarine and save his country from decades of fascist servitude (a new exhibition about his life has just opened at Bletchley Park), his country might be a teeny-weeny bit grateful and let the matter of consensual sexual relations with another adult man pass unnoticed.” It’s not often those two publications can agree.
Turing is most famous for the test that bears his name. In 1950 he wrote that computers would soon be able to imitate human conversation so well that a blind observer would not be able to tell the difference between man and machine 70 percent of the time. “I believe,” he said, “that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
We’re not quite there yet, as anyone who has ever tried to ask a question of Siri, the iPhone “digital personal assistant,” can tell you. Nor have annual Turing tests, conducted under the auspices of the Loebner Prize, crowned a computer victor. But in the years that have passed since Turing’s death, humans have at least managed to become more human.
In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the British government’s treatment of Turing: “Without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War II could well have been very different.…On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: We’re sorry. You deserved so much better.”
The Royal Mail has issued a commemorative stamp in honor of the Turing centenary, and there’s a movement to put him on the £10 note, despite the government’s refusal to issue an formal pardon. Perhaps fittingly, the official stamp features not the mistreated man but one of his useful machines.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of reason.