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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (FP: 1983/2014)

Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a role almost designed for him in the movie ‘The Imitation Game’ – inspired by this book) is arguably one of the most important figures in the 20th Century. Not only did he bring into the light the idea of thinking machines but, from first principles in a way no one had ever done before, showed the world how to build what anyone living today would recognise as a computer – essentially a Turing Universal Machine capable of anything will can programme it to do. In a very real sense Alan Turing invented the Modern Age and can even be credited (at least arguably) as being the father of Artificial Intelligence. That alone would have made him into much more than a footnote in human technological achievement but that was only part of his legacy to the modern world.

After struggling through school and only gaining a University scholarship after several attempts the young Alan Turing shocked his tutors more than once by creating new ideas almost out of thin air precisely because huge gaps were present in his education forcing him to construct entirely new ways of approaching some traditional problems and defeating them seemingly with wizardry. He was a dreamer who wondered about the fundamentals of mathematical existence and gave little thought to social relations, dress codes, or whether a borrowed bike was designed for boys or girls. He had little time for fools and, unfortunately from his point of view, most people he met fell into that category. He was in every sense the archetypal misfit even with other misfits. What saved him from probable obscurity only known by fellow mathematicians was World War Two and the vital need to break German codes and in particular the apparently unbreakable Enigma. In a super-secret facility in Bletchley Park Turing and other mathematicians plugged away at the codes week after week with little success but slowly, aided by ‘cribs’, mistakes by code operators and some Enigma machines themselves the messages were being decoded on a more and more regular basis. First days after the event, then hours and finally almost in real time. By now The Park had expanded to encompass hundreds of workers and a growing number of the world’s first electronic computers. Without the information generated by Turing and the rest of the staff at Bletchley Park the war would have lasted far longer, there would have been a far greater loss of life and it’s even possible that Germany might have knocked Britain out of the war making it far more difficult for America to take an active and positive role in things.

You would think that would be enough, but no. After the war Turing continued to advance the field of computing and found himself on the ground floor of both the UK Governments attempt to build the world’s first digital computers and industry’s attempts to do likewise. Helping to devise (and often create) coding and hardware from scratch that had never existed before Turing stamped his mark on the very DNA of the technological society we live in today. Still only in his early 40’s with a potentially bright and productive future ahead of him he killed himself in 1954 aged just 41. The reason? Just two years before he had been arrested and convicted of a (then illegal) homosexual offence only just missing a jail sentence. With the Cold War moving into high gear and Turing already involved in work on the mathematics of nuclear weapons and consulting with GCHQ (the British code breaking and surveillance agency) on cryptography he was apparently ripe for blackmail and was deemed to be a major security risk. Unwilling to change his habits (or even to be simply more discreet) he couldn’t be allowed to keep his security ranking and had to leave projects he was deeply involved in. With little to look forward to, he seemingly made the decision to take his own life.

The irony is, of course, that Turing never really was a security risk. He didn’t hide his homosexuality and was certainly not ashamed of it. He didn’t like his personal life being made public (who does) but he never associated any embarrassment, disgrace or dishonour with being simply who he unapologetically was – a homosexual man. The double irony was that only 3 years after his death the UK government began moving in a much more liberal direction and in 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in participants were over 21. Because of a temporary hard-line approach to human sexuality one of the greatest minds of the 20th century was lost to us all.

This exhaustive book – at 679 pages without notes – covered Alan’s life through school, University, the War and beyond in great detail. Actual mathematics is (thankfully) kept to a minimum but there’s still some tough concepts to get your head around scatted like hard candy throughout the book. I did honestly find this a bit of a slog and sometimes skimmed over some of the more technical bits. The Enigma period was, as expected, fascinating as was the early years of the computer revolution – from both sides of the Atlantic. Definitely one for the Geeks out there but still of interest to the more general reader especially if you have any interest in computers, AI or codes.                


Mudpuddle said...

the movie was good, but after reading your post, it sounds like it left a lot out... but did put in the important stuff: his death, the stupid government, and his role in inventing computers... imo, and if it was a just world, he would have gotten the Nobel prize, even tho it wouldn't have meant much to him... great post: tx...

Brian Joseph said...

I want to read this book. Turing was indeed one of the most significant people in human history.

The injustice that he endured is disturbing and was criminal.

CyberKitten said...

@ Mudpuddle: Oh, the movie left a massive amount out. This book was an excellent source of background information and really helped fill the gaps.

He should indeed have received the Nobel Prize for his work 'On Computable Numbers'.

@ Brian: Definitely agree on his significance. Apparently he also dabbled in phone cryptography which led directly to the present mobile phone systems across the planet. A great injustice was done to him for no good reason.