Alan Turing and the Thinking Machine — Part II

Alan Turing and the Thinking Machine — Part II

    After the war Turing returned to his own machines, designing the ACE, Automatic Computing Engine, an early electronic stored-program computer, but he couldn’t get the funding.  He lacked the charisma and charm of someone like von Neumann.  He didn’t know how to sell himself, how to market his ideas.  He was adept at codes, but social interaction was one cipher he couldn’t break.  Meanwhile, other computers were being built, the Colossus, IBM, and the famous ENIAC, Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.  ENIAC had decimal notation and was ponderously slow.  To change instructions, you had to take it apart and manually change switches and cables (“screwdriver interference,” Turing called it).  By the time it was fully operational in 1945, it was already obsolete.  Turing’s machine would be able to make these changes automatically, if he could manage to get one built, and he stressed the importance of being able to modify stored programs.
    At the same time he was also a world class distance runner.  He barely missed qualifying for the 1948 British Olympic marathon team, due to an injury.  He had discovered running in his teens, and he said it helped him think.  As a former distance runner myself, I can tell you it does put one in an altered state of consciousness, and the endorphin high is nice, too.  That bit, or byte, was from my memory files.  Memory, and lots of it, was another primary concern for Turing.  Yet the machine, in his words, would use a form of memory “with which any possible entry can be reached at short notice.”  In 1950, a scaled down version of ACE, the Pilot ACE, was built, but by then Turing had moved on.
    He was one of the original thinkers on artificial intelligence, what that constituted, and how it might be proven.  He invented several versions of the “Imitation Game.”  Could a human tell if it were talking to a machine or another human?  If one couldn’t see the machine, only its output in the form of writing, it becomes more difficult.  If a machine can learn to deceive, is that a sign of intelligence?  How can you know if a machine is deceiving you (or another human, for that matter)?  The Turing test is still in wide use, and the subject of an intriguing 2015 film, “Ex Machina.”  By the way, have you noticed it’s getting more difficult to tell if telemarketers are live or recorded? Often the voice you hear is programmed to respond to your responses — another Turing test.
    Around the same time he was pursuing yet another passion from his childhood book, Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know — morphogenesis.  It’s the study of growth and pattern in living things.  He’d noticed the Fibonacci sequence of numbers in the pattern of a fir cone, a relationship widely found in nature, as in the chambered nautilus.  I’m thinking he must have also been aware of the phi ratio, another morphogenic relationship common not only in nature, but in the proportions of the human body.  Of course he couldn’t have known about stem cells, but he was right about chemical signals being the key to the process.
    In 1952 he was burgled by a friend of the young man he’d been seeing.  He called police, and during their questioning, accidentally admitted the affair.  Turing had always found the idea of deceiving anyone distasteful, and so he was caught out.  He and the young man were arrested for “gross indecency,” the same law for which Oscar Wilde went to prison.  For years he had been playing his own imitation game, a gay man passing for straight.  Now he faced his own decidability problem, either a year in prison or what amounts to chemical castration.  Nothing could interrupt his work, so he opted for the treatment.  The pseudo-science of the day presumed homosexuals could be cured by high doses of the female hormone estrogen.  He wasn’t cured, but he became impotent and grew breasts.  In the last months of his treatment, rather than pills, he was given an implant in his thigh.  He later removed it himself.  Contrary to some depictions of his treatment as debilitating and agonizing, he remained in high spirits, and kept working throughout that year.
    He was stripped of his security clearance, so future government work was closed to him, as were further visits to the United States.  Homosexuals were believed to be more subject to blackmail, so they couldn’t be trusted with high-security work.  Turing composed his own verse about his attitude on the subject:

                        Turing believes machines think
                        Turing lies with men
                        Therefore machines do not think.

    The play on the words “lies with men” reveals his lifelong love of wordplay and puns.  And his work continued, now at Manchester University and reunited with Max Newman.  That computer was an Italian model called the Ferranti Mark I.  A colleague once described Turing operating its manual controls as “like watching someone play the organ.”
    On June 7th, 1954, Turing apparently took his own life, Snow White style, by biting into an apple laced with cyanide.  It was ruled a suicide, and yet they never examined the apple.  He had made out a will the previous February.  During his treatment he had also been seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Franz Greenbaum, and later became friends with him and his wife.  Dr. Greenbaum related a story of the three of them visiting a seaside resort, and Turing went into a tent for a Gypsy fortunetelling.  He came out white as a sheet, and wouldn’t discuss it further.  Turing could keep secrets, and he kept that one as well.  After his death, Jack Good, one of his colleagues at Bletchley Park, said:  “It was a good thing the authorities hadn’t known he was a homosexual during the war, because if they had, they would have fired him, and we would have lost.”
    Recently he is finally getting the recognition he has long deserved.  Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century (along with von Neumann).  In 2009 then PM Gordon Brown tried to issue an “unequivocal apology,” but it was denied by the Justice Minister.  Then in 2012, the Queen officially pardoned him under her Royal Prerogative of Mercy.
    Alan Turing was only one among many mathematical djinn who laid the foundations of computer science, but it’s Turing’s innovative ideas that are largely responsible for the way computers work.  For instance, he came up with the idea that there is no fundamental difference between data and the instructions that process it, then proved it mathematically.  This basic concept, so elegant in its simplicity, sped up computer development by decades.  There is a lot of Alan Turing in the computer you’re using right now.  He had always been stubbornly literal-minded.  During the war he joined the Home Guard, but he never signed his military ID because an officer told him “Don’t write on this card.”  Now listen to his description of how a computer takes its instructions:  “The machine interprets whatever it is told in a quite definite manner without any sense of humour or proportion.  Unless in communicating with it one says exactly what one means, trouble is bound to result.”  It’s a lesson I learned quickly after getting a computer.  One of the first times I used Google, I was looking for information on a Canadian TV show called “North of 60,” about a white police constable in an indigenous village.  So I entered “North of 60,” and got page after page of basketball scores in which one opponent scored 60 points, and/or if at least one opponent had North in its name.  Believe me, there are a lot of high schools with North in their names.  When I added “television series” I had better luck.
    You’ve probably had to pass another Turing test found on many websites.  CAPTCHA asks you to reproduce a series of hard-to-read numbers, or perform a simple math test like “Five minus three” and express the answer in digits.  That’s to weed out web bots, which are themselves playing the Imitation Game, trying to pass as human.  CAPTCHA is an acronym for Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.  You also pay homage to him every time you set your smartphone to ring.  Get it? Tu-ring.
    I can’t help but wonder what Turing would think of the modern laptop or iPhone.  Would he marvel, slack-jawed, or would he perhaps ask, “Is that all it can do?”
    If you’d like to learn more about Turing and his ideas, there are many biographies, the chief among them Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing:  The Enigma.  It’s very good, but at over 700 pages, I’d recommend you pack a lunch.  There are two fine films, both adapted from the book.  “Breaking the Code” (2008) was adapted from a play, and stars Derek Jacobi as Turing.  Considering the title, hardly any time is spent on Enigma, and nearly half the film explores Turing’s homosexuality and the times.  But it explains Turing’s ideas so lucidly I very nearly understood.  I think “The Imitation Game” (2014) is a better film, despite some historical inaccuracies, with a strong cast, headed by Benedict Cumberbatch.  There’s also supposedly an extensive website called the Turing Project (, but I couldn’t get into it because it requires a plug-in, and I’m too stupid to know what that is.
    Just one more little bit of business, concerning the Apple logo, an apple with a bite taken out.  Was it a nod to Turing?  When actor Stephen Fry asked his friend Steve Jobs that question, Jobs replied, “God, we wish it were.”  Rob Janoff, the logo designer, said in an interview that originally there was no bite, but it looked as much like a cherry.  The bite taken out made it look more like an apple; that’s all.  Or is it?  If you’re old enough to remember, the original logo wasn’t monochromatic, but rainbow colored, horizontally.  And yet the rainbow flag as the symbol of gay pride didn’t appear until the next year, 1978.  We might say these are coincidences.  Are they?  Or are they examples of the synchronicity inherent in an interconnected universe?  And Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious might suggest a subconscious motif, or motifs, expressing themselves through the artist.  This is all conjecture, you understand, and I’m sure Turing wouldn’t approve.  At least not without mathematical proof.
    Does other symbolism suggest anything?  I thought of the apple (more likely a quince) that Adam and Eve sampled, the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  Is artificial intelligence the forbidden fruit?  Or is it the antidote?  And what was that fruit?  It was from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  So for my own nod to Alan Turing, I would submit that we represent these polar opposites with the numerical values 1 and 0.

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