Quite an enigma: cracking the code on tragic life of genius Alan Turing
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age
Review by Ruairi Roddy
B Jack Copeland Oxford University Press, £14.99 Review: Ruairi Roddy
Turing was a brilliant systemic thinker; capable of seeing patterns in problems, and shortcuts to solutions, in the interfaces between mathematics, engineering and computer science
There are a number of aspects to the Alan Turing story; the brilliant and difficult scientist who had a major hand in the development of computer science, and also helped break German codes in the Second World War; the eccentric but kind enthusiast and athlete; and the lonely gay man, whose run-ins with authority set up the tale of a tragic end to his life that is compelling, but not necessarily true.
Copeland’s biography of Turing is an accessible entryway to Turing’s life, but is necessarily brief — the human story is complex, the technical one even more so — and concludes with Turing’s tragic end, his death at the age of 42 from apparent cyanide poisoning.
Copeland asserts that the conclusion of suicide — and that the narrative of Turing’s life turns to sadness and unrealised potential on his conviction for indecency as a result of a consensual homosexual relationship — is unsafe. He explains that it might be simpler and kinder to conclude that Turing’s death was as a result of the misadventure and eccentricity with which the genius was associated all his life.
Turing’s carelessness with his considerable home experimentation with cyanide leading to his end would be a far more logical conclusion to draw for this master of logic, than death by suicide with a poisoned apple.
Certainly, Turing was treated badly by not being recognised for his tremendous achievements, and was deserving of an official apology — delivered by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 — for absurdities like chemical castration. It’s also true to say that his contributions to his science have been under-recognised — but times were different and his was not the only codebreaker’s work that was kept hidden for longer than strictly necessary.
Not that much of this would have concerned him; he appears to have been ego-less — naive and childlike in some interactions, uninterested in power or administrative achievement, a tinkerer archetype with a philosopher’s soul.
Copeland is professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, where he is the director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing.
Turing was a brilliant systemic thinker; capable of seeing patterns in problems, and shortcuts to solutions, in the interfaces between mathematics, engineering and computer science.
Almost as famous as his sad death, Turing’s contribution to code breaking at Bletchley Park — through the Enigma machine, through the development of the Colossus and the submission of the Tunny cipher — was instrumental in shortening the course of the Second World War.
The Bletchley Park work, however, not only turned the tide of war — the extent to which German communications were compromised is staggering — but served to mash together some of the most brilliant minds in emergent disciplines whose relationships set the scene for the computing revolution.
In his academic work, with the rich seams of inspiration which he almost casually gifted in the areas in which he was interested, the work continues today; the philosophical arguments continue to rage about the eponymous test, which he devised to determine the boundaries of artificial thought, or his machine, his original breakthrough, which set the stage for programmable general-purpose computers and reduced to elegant simplicity the processes by which these machines might be built.
His ‘Machine’, a revolutionary concept delivered in an obscure academic paper, forms the basis for the entire computing revolution; for it was he who originally created the breakthrough of a general-purpose computing device whose configuration could be controlled by code, with different code providing different capabilities for the machine.
It’s doubtful that he could ever have foreseen Angry Birds, but it’s through the mental model that he created that computing has now reached that rather dubious peak.
The Turing Test, in brief, involves a three-way conversation between a computer, a human control subject and an interrogator — presumably also another human. The rules of the game are simple: through typed communication — ie, only words on screen — the computer must try to convince the interrogator that they are human, by responding to their queries as if they are human. If the interrogator is unable to tell between the control and the computer, then the computer is said to ‘think’.
After the war, as Britain demilitarised and civilian organisations began to take over the informatics work which he pioneered, Turing remained at the centre of innovation in artificial intelligence, computing and, indeed, the development of the hacker culture.
A few inexplicable run-ins with power-hungry administrators of the worst sort seem to have been mere distractions to the genius; his focus on artificial life and thinking machines quite often producing paper solutions months and years ahead of the hardware on which the theories could be tested.
He was well travelled, and accomplished in many areas; and had good friends and associates through most of his life; not an anti-social nerd, but a focused achiever with rough edges, at least as he grew older.
And then it ended; abruptly, without any real hint of turmoil, secret agent activity or above-normal carelessness. Discovered by his housekeeper, with little out of place, and with conclusions hurriedly drawn about what had taken place.
Turing was one of the brightest lights in science in the 20th century; a remarkable man, with a remarkable story. There are few who can truly claim to have founded a science; and few that can have cared so little that they did. This book is a worthy tribute to his genius.
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