An end to Turing Instability

Alan Turing was a superhero. Admittedly he got a bit distracted messing around with mathematical logic, artificial intelligence and inventing the digital computer, but in-between he also developed some of the first ever theoretical ideas in artificial life, specifically his work on nonlinear dynamical systems in the chemical basis of morphogenesis, and his posthumously published and little-known explorations of “unorganised machines“, which we would nowadays recognise as neural networks. Unlike the digital computer, neither of these alternative paradigms for computation has yet been fully developed.

But Turing was also wrapped up in the highly secretive world of code-breaking, through which he helped to shorten the Second World War substantially and save thousands of lives. Wartime Britain took its secrets very seriously and this “walls have ears” attitude became so ingrained in the culture that much of Turing’s work was hidden from view for too long to become part of established history. As a consequence, few members of the general public had even heard of him, let alone realised his role in creating the 21st Century, at least until Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing came out in the early 1980’s. Bletchley Park, the headquarters of the code-breaking effort, still unaccountably struggles to preserve what’s left of its gently rotting history in the absence of government support.

Turing was also gay, and hence became considered a security threat. He was sentenced to be chemically castrated and came under harassing scrutiny. In 1954 he apparently committed suicide. At the very least he was effectively hounded to an early death by the British government, and it is even possible that he was secretly assassinated. This is not the way to treat heroes.

But last week, thanks to a petition started by John Graham-Cumming, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued the following official apology. It’s far too late for Alan Turing, but I’m sure it will go some way towards correcting the insult to his name. I’m sure the gay community will appreciate the sentiment too, although I imagine this is just one of a thousand hoped-for apologies as far as they’re concerned. Apologies are pretty empty things when given by someone other than those who carried out the offence, but I do think they represent a statement of intent for the future and can be held against people when they act hypocritically, so I think it is still A Good Thing and a valued correction to history. I hope it will now be followed by some positive government action to preserve our heritage at Bletchley Park, where I’ve twice had the honour to tread in Alan’s footsteps and give talks on AI.

Thanks to Ann for telling me about the petition.

[Update: September 30: Bletchley Park have just announced a grant of half a million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and are applying for another 4 million. English Heritage and Milton Keynes Council have also provided almost a million for repairs. Jolly good show chaps!]

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So 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.

Gordon Brown

About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

8 Responses to An end to Turing Instability

  1. Nicholas Lee says:

    Dear Steve,
    “Turing discovered that a large enough B-type neural network can be configured (via its connection-modifiers) in such a way that it itself becomes a general-purpose computer.”

    Alan Turing’s B-type neurons look a bit familiar.
    Rather reminicent of your Yin-Yang pathways, (page 127 of “Growing Up With Lucy”.)
    Looks like you think the way Alan did. Better stay away from the apples in that case!

    Nick Lee

    PS: At my work we have named one of the splendid meeting rooms in our Edwardian manor house the ‘Turing Room’ in his honour.

    • stevegrand says:

      Heh! Thanks Nick, but I don’t think I’m quite up to Turing’s standard! 🙂

      I am, however, less clumsy, so I think it’s fairly unlikely I’d smear over half a gram of a cyanide salt on an apple by accident. I guess I’m probably safe unless a wicked witch comes to the door. Or the Secret Service…

      I’m delighted to hear there’s a room named after him though. All I knew of up to that point was a roundabout, which seems more like an insult than an honour!

  2. Pius Agius says:

    Hi Steve

    For many years now I have known about Alan Turing’s work and was greatly dismayed about the way he was treated. There was a BBC show about the secret work he did and how he unraveled the mystery of the Enigma machine. This brought home how the world can be cruel and uncaring to such a brilliant and gentle man.

    Those of us in this field of machine intelligence we are not long into it when we trip over the now famous and often misquoted Turing Test. His thoughts were so ahead of there times I wonder what else he would have come up with had he lived ?

    This apology was nice and a great start. However I feel that something a little more tangible could be done to honour this man.

    Nice to see your comment.

    Take Care


    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Pius. Yes, I saw that play. Derek Jacobi played Turing, I think. Have you read Andrew Hodges’ book? It’s very good.

    • Nicholas Lee says:

      Hi Pius,
      I think that a statue of Alan Turing would make a fine permanent addition to the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. By his genius and code-breaking efforts in WWII, he helped protect Britain from invasion like Lord Nelson did.

      Nick Lee

  3. Pius Agius says:

    Hi Steve

    Yes that book was well written. I like books that give all the details and paints the story of the man with a very fine brush. Historical and biographical novels that do this open our eyes and minds to what really happened.

    Alan Turing was a true pioneer and he did not hide from some very difficult problems. Indeed England has surely produced keen minds who are brave and fearless and we are a better world for that.

    Take care


  4. Pius Agius says:

    Hello Nicholas

    I remember an old song lyric. I state this even though it gives an indication as to my age. It went, if I can recall correctly, ‘ You don’t know what you have till its gone ‘. A simple phrase and like all such sayings covers a great deal when we think about it.

    The nature of that war and what happened has been documented but now after many, many years of silence the secret operations are coming to light. I find history and this kind of history fascinating.

    However history is not just about places and events. People very much like us in those places made these events happen. Those human beings who abandoned all the best that we are became the monsters that caused the eventual horrors that others fought against. Some went into the theatres of war to combat the evil and others lead them in places of power. The spotlight was on them during and after the war.

    After reading about Alan Turing I could not see him go into battle. He was a gentle, kind soul who could not bring himself to do the deeds that had to be done in order to restore civilization. However his intellect saw the need his government required to see through the diabolical code produced by that Enigma machine. Though he never fired a shot he did so much to help defeat the monsters disguised as men that he should be revered as a hero of the first order.

    It makes me sad that his story is still not well known. Yes Nicholas as statue would be wonderful. Yet I still feel this is not enough to make up for all those decades of neglect. At the very least people are at last talking about it. Time will tell what happens.

    Take Care


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