Two-Thousand-and-twelve marks the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth. Turing, of course, was a British mathematical genius who was preeminent among the “code -breakers”, those who during the Second World War helped to break the Nazi Enigma codes and were thus instrumental in helping the Allies win the war. Turing was one of the pioneers of modern computers. He was the first to imagine the idea of what became known as a Universal Turing Machine, (the title of the drawing above) the idea that any computer was in effect equal to any other and could, therefore, given sufficient time, solve any problem whose solution was computable.
In the last years of his life Turing worked on applying mathematical concepts to biology. Presaging the work of, Benoît Mandelbro, he was particularly struck by how the repetition of simple patterns could give rise to complex forms. Turing was in effect using computation as a metaphor to understand nature, something that can be seen today in the work of people such as Steven Wolfram in his New Kind of Science, and in fields such as chaos and complexity theory. It also lies at the root of the synthetic biology being pioneered, as we speak, by Craig Venter.
Turning is best remembered, however, for a thought experiment he proposed in a 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, that became known as the “Turing test”, a test that has remained the pole star for the field of artificial intelligence up until our own day, along with the tragic circumstances the surrounded the last years of his life.
In my next post, I will provide a more in-depth explanation of the Turing test. For now, it is sufficient to know that the test proposes to identify whether a computer possesses human level intelligence by seeing if a computer can fool a person into thinking the computer is human. If the computer can do so, then it can be said, under Turing’s definition, to possess human level intelligence.
Turing was a man who was comfortable with his own uniqueness, and that uniqueness included the fact that he was homosexual at a time when homosexuality was considered both a disease and a crime. In 1952, Turning, one of the greatest minds ever produced by Britain, a hero of World War Two, and a member of the Order of the British Empire was convicted in a much publicized trial for having engaged in homosexual relationship. It was the same law under which Oscar Wilde had been prosecuted almost sixty years before.
Throughout his trial, Turing maintained that he had done nothing wrong in having such a relationship, but upon conviction faced a series of nothing- but- bad options, the least bad of which he decided was hormone “therapy” as a means of controlling his “deviant” urges, a therapy he chose to voluntarily undergo given the alternatives which included imprisonment.
The idea of hormone therapy represented a very functionalist view of the mind. Hormones had been discovered to regulate human sexual behavior, so the idea was that if you could successfully manipulate hormone levels you could produce the desired behavior. Perhaps part of the reason Turing chose this treatment is that it had something of the input-output qualities of the computers that he had made the core of his life-work. In any case, the therapy ended after the period of a year- the time period he was sentenced to undergo the treatment. Being shot through with estrogen did not have the effect of mentally and emotionally castrating Turing, but it did have nasty side effects such as making him grow breasts and “feminizing” his behavior.
Turing’s death, all evidence appears to indicate, came at his own hand, ingesting an apple laced with poison in seeming imitation of the movie Snow White. Why did Turing commit suicide, if in fact he did so? It was not, it seems, an effect of his hormone therapy, which had ended quite some time before. He did not appear especially despondent to his family or friends in the period immediately before his death.
One plausible explanation is that, given the rising tensions of the Cold War, and the obvious value Turing had as an espionage target, Turing realized that on account of his very public outing, he had lost his private life. Who could be trusted now except his very oldest and deepest friends? What intimacy could he have when everyone he met might be a Soviet spy meant to seduce what they considered a vulnerable target, or an agent of the British or American states sent there to entrap him? From here on out his private life was likely to be closely scrutinized: by the press, by the academy, by Western and Soviet security agencies. He had to wonder if he would face new trials, new tortuous “treatments”, to make him “normal” perhaps even imprisonment.
What a loss of honor for a man who had done so much to help the British win the war the reason, perhaps, that Turing’s death occurred on or very near the ten year anniversary of the D-Day landing he had helped to make possible. What outlets could there be for a man of his genius when all of the “big science” was taking place under the umbrella of the machinery of war, where so much of science was regarded as state secrets and guarded like locked treasures and any deviation from the norm was considered a vulnerability that needed to be expunged? Perhaps his brilliant mind had shielded him from the reality of what had happened and his new situation after his trial, but only for so long, and that once he realized what his life had become the facts became too much to bear.
We will likely never truly know.
The centenary of Turing’s birth has been rightly celebrated with a bewildering array of tributes, and remembrances. Perhaps, the most interesting of these tributes, so far, has been the unveiling of a symphony composed entirely by a computer, and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on July, 2, 2012.. This was a piece (really a series of several pieces) “composed” by a computer algorithm- Iamus, and entitled: “Hello World!”
Please take a listen to this piece by clicking on the link below, and share with me your thoughts. Your ideas will help guide my own thoughts on this perplexing event, but my suspicion right now is that “Hello World!” represents something quite different than what either its sympathizers or distractors suggest, and gives us a window into the meaning and significance of the artificial intelligences we are bringing into what was once our world alone.