Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Imitation Game: A look at Alan Turing, the Father of Our Age

Alan Turing

Have you ever looked at your computer and wondered what its origin was? Some would point to companies like Apple or IBM. Others might point to the room sized computers such as ENIAC. However there are two older machines, that were enemies, that stand as the Great Grandparent of all computers: the Nazi’s Enigma cypher machine and Alan Turing’s machine that was built to crack the Enigma settings for the day. Mr. Turing was much more than the father of all computers and A.I. theory, he also foresaw the coming sexual revolution and liberation of the late Sixties and Seventies. Indeed Mr. Turing was a man before his time, and The Imitation Game displays the life of a complex man who had thoughts that would not be realized for more than 50-60 years after his death.

A Life Portrayed (Spoilers for the film) 
As Alan Turing was not a conventional person in his life, so this film was not written in a conventional manner. Rather than following a traditional story arc the film jumps between three critical stages in Turing’s life: adolescence, the war, and his postwar life. Graham Moore, who wrote the screenplay, weaves these distinct periods together to enlighten viewers to the struggles of a complex mind. As a teenage youth at school, Alan is shown to be a quiet boy with only one friend in Christopher Morcomb. They were near constant companions who shared a love of math and science. However, Christopher is very different from Alan. Christopher can swim freely in the world and interact with people while Alan in withdrawn and does not understand what people take for granted as normal. In a revelatory scene, Alan and Christopher are sitting under a tree reading. Alan asks what his friend is reading, he is told that it is an introduction to cryptology, a special kind of math that allows people to say things so no one else can understand unless they know the code key. Alan responds, saying “How is that different from what normally happens? People never say what they mean, but everyone understands what is being said.” Christopher laughs and hands Alan the book saying “I think you will enjoy this”. This and other scenes of Turing’s youth inform viewers as to Alan’s difficulty in working with others, his self assured knowledge of his intellect, his aloof behavior and the inklings of his early homosexual identity, especially in his interactions with Christopher.

The majority of his war service is shown at Blechly Park or Blechly Radio School (different names for the same place) with interludes in the town of Milton Keynes, and London. This is where the Admiralty set up their code breaking headquarters, and Turing interviews for his position as a member of the team to crack Enigma. Here an adult Turing is arrogant in his intelligence, clearly doesn’t play well with others, and is has a general scorn for ideas he believes won’t work. The task of this team is is to crack the settings for the Enigma coding machine, created by the Nazis to encrypt every one of their transmissions. The problem was not intercepting the messages as they were broadcast in open air. The real problem was reading the messages once they were intercepted. The British had obtained an Enigma machine via the Polish, who had smuggled one out before the country fell, however the issue was that the British did not have the settings the Nazis were using to encode their signals. This was the task of the team that Turing was joining. They had 18 hours (from the first transmission at 6am to when the settings changed at midnight) to crack the settings for that particular day. Turing refuses to work by hand, and begins to draw up the plans for a “universal computing machine” that will crack the enigma settings. While initially not supported, Turing gains support from Winston Churchill and is made leader of the team. He eventually even gains the grudging support of his team members, one of which suggests the idea of parallel processing to speed up the elimination of settings. New team members bring new ideas and approaches to make the machine, called “Christopher” by Turing , faster and more effective.
Turing’s post war life is focused on the year 1952 where he is investigated by a detective after Turing rudely denies that a robbery occurred at his home. Turing, who was working as a mathematics professor at Kings University was also working on a new model of Christopher in his own home. This investigation ultimately turns up evidence of Turing engaging in homosexual acts, which was illegal under Britain’s indecency laws at the time. Turing charged with gross indecency chooses to undergo chemical castration, which ultimately robs him of his intellect. He would commit suicide in 1954, never seeing the realization of all the ideas he had and the world he had help given birth to.

Computers, Programming, and Artificial Intelligence
It is interesting to note that after WWII and later Turing’s death, the science of computers and programing began to languish. The film does not cover this, as it focuses on how the machine and Turing’s life are connected, but the book that inspired the film does. Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, covers in great depth the life of and triumphs of Turing. Published originally in 1983, the more recent publications have a new forward that include the Royal Pardon that Turing received from Queen Elizabeth II, as well as new information since the declassification of Turing’s work at Bletchly Park. The slow development of programming and new advances in “Turing Machines” or computers comes from the highly classified nature of the project. The British kept much of the information a secret for over fifty years, and all members of the project had signed the official secrets act, making it an act of treason to discuss the project. This secrecy inherently hampered Turing’s ability to publish his achievements to the wider intellectual world. Even then, Turing was not so much interested in the programming of computers but rather attempting to create a truly sentient machine. This is possibly related to the death of his friend Christopher, and may have been the driving force behind his attempts. Despite the secrecy, others continued the work that Turing started, and now look at world in which we live.

A Different Way of Thinking and the Father of our Time
If you’re reading this, you would have to be using a computer of some kind. Look at it, and realize what we owe to Alan Turing. If you play video games and interact with progressively more difficult AI as difficulties are increased, again, thank Alan Turing. He is the father of the computer and one of the leaders in our culture. Ideas posited by Turing are the just coming to realization in our time as technology progresses. Our science fiction films and books debate the possibilities of self aware machines, and what will happen if one is ever created. Neill Blomkamp’s new film, Chappie, debates the very possibility of how society might react to a self aware machine. We use drones to fight our wars, and survey our populations. All these technologies are rooted to Turing’s machine in one way or another. After seeing this film, my first reaction was to rush home and grab my Kindle and buy the book that inspired the movie. My second reaction was to write this article, and to use a computer to do it. It is common place that we take our technologies for granted, and I hope that I will cease to do that and rather think in awe of what went into making them - and the incredible men and women who helped create them.

In the film, Turing refers several times to way of thought. Sometimes he is referring to himself, while other times he is thinking of artificial intelligence. This theme of different ways of thinking is the ultimate theme of this film. We are so lucky to live in our time, despite everything that is wrong with it, we are truly lucky. We are more free to be who we are now than Alan Turing was in his time. He had to hide his feelings, while creating in secret what would be the first computer to crack what was thought to be an unbreakable code. While there are still bigots and backwards people in the world, homosexuality is widely accepted, and more and more each year, we are getting closer to equal rights and acceptance. Turing accepted himself and his feelings as just another way of thinking, and did not understand why others did not see it that way. He even got engaged to a woman with whom he worked, Joan Clarke.  Their relationship was based on a love of minds and thoughts not the physical body. While Turing would terminate this relationship for reasons unveiled in the film, Clarke had wished it to continue. She claimed that she had her own notion that Turing was a homosexual, and was not bothered when Turing told her. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Turing is in an interrogation room with the detective who was investigating him and they play the “Imitation Game” where a judge asks a subject questions to determine whether the subject is a man or machine. This very scene is where the film begins and comes to the beginning of its epilogue. At the end of the game, the detective claims that “he can not judge” Turing, and regrets even investigating him. If you have not seen this movie, go and see it, and if you have take time to reflect. It is my hope that people will go and see this film and be inspired to learn more about Mr. Turing. More importantly I hope that this film will go some way to break down the walls in peoples minds and hearts that keep them from accepting that because someone chooses to love differently from they way they do, does not make them immoral or strange. I leave you with these words:

A rebuilt functioning "Bombe" computer, as designed by Turing and his team

“He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?”
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare Act 3 Scene 1

David Losey is a local techie, stage hand, historian, and home brewer. 

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