Some Thoughts On Alan Turing and ‘The Imitation Game’

Rick Howard


Category: Cybersecurity

Executive Summary

The Alan Turing story is so fantastic that it was inevitable that somebody should make a movie about it. His life is both inspiring and horrifying. I am amazed at the paradigm-shifting insights Turing gave to the world in such a short time and appalled at what the world did to him because of ignorance and the need to keep secrets hidden from the world. I have a soft spot for genius scientists anyway, but because of his meteoric rise and subsequent spectacular crash to the ground, Alan Turing is one of my favorites. The movie, The Imitation Game, brings that story to the masses and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance makes Turing accessible; makes him a hero. You should see this movie, not only because of the fine job it does with the Turing story but also because Turing’s contributions to technology are something any cybersecurity person should fully understand.

Introduction

The Imitation Game is good and I am so happy that it is. The movie is a dramatization of my all-time favorite science hero: Alan Turing. I first discovered Turing’s story of world-changing achievement and heartbreaking tragedy when I first read Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon back in the late 1990s. Cryptonomicon is the best hacker novel of all time, in my humble opinion, and Stephenson uses the real-world Turing to influence one of his fictional characters in the story. These days, the word “genius” is thrown around to describe all manner of individuals that excel. But the scientific world reserves the use of “genius” for the giants — people like Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, and, I would say, Turing.

Alan Turing

In his short life (1912-1954), Turing accomplished so much and pushed the boundaries of what we would today call the computer age. His “minor” accomplishments notwithstanding, he is responsible for three paradigm changing events in our world history: Inventing the Universal Turing Machine, leading the code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park during World War II and devising the Turing Test, a test that still influences the scientific community today to decide if a computer can pass itself off as being an intelligent being.

The Universal Turing Machine

Think about the Universal Turing Machine. Back in the 1930s, Turing was thinking about Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem where Gödel proved the existence of certain mathematical problems that cannot be solved. This was controversial at the time since most scientists thought that math and science could, and would, eventually solve all problems. Turing wondered if there was a way for him to mechanically test all possibilities. He was inspired by the work of Alfred Whitehead and Bertrand Russell in their book Principia Mathematica where they rebuilt the language of math from the ground up using a small set of first principles. They demonstrated a way to express all of math as a certain ordering of symbols. In a paper called, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, Turing’s great insight was that it was possible to change the function of a mechanical machine simply by changing the symbols you put into it. That sounds easy when you say it fast, but think about the implications.

With all computers, the brain behind making everything run is the Central Processing Unit (CPU). Not to simplify it too much, but the basic function of the CPU is to move continuous streams of binary numbers, those symbols that Turing was talking about, between storage areas and add them together really, really fast. Because of Turing’s insight, the CPU can transform your computer into a high-end gaming machine capable of rendering three-dimensional World of Warcraft Orcs that are communicating with each other from around the world in one instant, and in another, re-transform the computer into a complex spreadsheet that calculates standard deviations from reams of data the size of your local library. Before Turing mathematically proved it in 1936, machines in the real world were mostly single-purpose machines: the hammer, the wedge, the screw, the gas engine, etc. Turing proved that by changing the symbols you feed into a machine, you could change the function of the machine. Genius!

Bletchley Park

This led to Turing’s life-saving work helping to break Germany’s Enigma cipher machine during World War II. Because of his leadership (and the efforts of many at Bletchley Park), the Allies essentially knew what the German forces were going to do before the German commanders in the field knew. One estimate puts the number of lives saved at Bletchley Park to be between 14 and 21 million. He was a British national hero but because the work that he did was so highly classified, only a handful of people in the world knew it. As the movie shows, this became a problem for him after the war and is one of the reasons behind Turing’s great tragedy.

The Turing Test

In 1950, Turing published a paper called Computing Machinery and Intelligence where in the first sentence he states, “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’ ” He describes a thought experiment that he calls “The Imitation Game” where he puts a machine in one room, a person in another and judge in a third separate room. By reviewing the answers to written questions that he submits to both subjects, the judge’s job is to determine which subject is the machine and which subject is the human. Turing predicted that a machine might be able to win this Imitation Game 30 percent of the time by the year 2000. Since the publication, modern scholars in many different fields have tried to poke holes in “The Turing Test” for being inadequate. Skeptics say that The Imagination Game does not go far enough in defining what a “thinking” digital computer really means. But as Mark Halpern wrote back in 2006, Turing’s paper became the seed from which future ideas have sprung.

“[I]t has become one of the most reprinted, cited, quoted, misquoted, paraphrased, alluded to, and generally referenced philosophical papers ever published. It has influenced a wide range of intellectual disciplines — artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, epistemology, philosophy of mind — and helped shape public understanding, such as it is, of the limits and possibilities of non-human, man-made, artificial ‘intelligence.’ ”

The Tragedy

Turing was gay and probably had Asperger’s syndrome and maybe autism. When the authorities discovered his sexual orientation after the war, they charged him with homosexuality. At the time, homosexuality was an official crime in Britain. Because the work he did at Bletchley Park was so classified, nobody in the courtroom knew he was a national hero and none came to vouch for him. After the court convicted him, the judge gave him a choice for punishment: prison or chemical castration, a barbaric practice. In the end, the British declared Turing a security risk and kicked him out of the code-breaking program that continued after the war. More importantly, Turing himself thought the forced estrogen injections he received were affecting his ability to think. It became too much for him. In 1954, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple dipped in cyanide. The man was 42 years old; still in his prime. Even with all of his legal difficulties, he still was able to develop the Turing Test for intelligence. Just think what he might have been able to do if the authorities left him alone or allowed him to continue his work at Bletchley Park. The mind boggles.

The Movie

The Turing story is so fantastic that it was inevitable that somebody should make a movie about it. I must admit, I was a both little bit nervous about the project and full of anticipation for it too. I was nervous because I did not want Hollywood to besmirch my hero, but I really wanted them to do it right so that more people would know about this inspiring man. I am here to tell you that they got it right.

The movie is based on the book, Alan Turing: The Enigma written by Andrew Hodges. As with all dramas that are “Based on a True Story,” the film crew took certain liberties with the facts in order to make the story more coherent and to add dramatic effect. In doing so, I think they absolutely captured the essence Dr. Turing’s personality and the significance of his three major accomplishments. This is quite amazing really since all three are highly technical, but the screenwriters, the director, and the actors adroitly kept the right balance between the technical and the dramatic to make the story compelling.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing and he absolutely personifies everything that I have learned about the man over the last 15 years. He realistically captures his autistic tics, embodies his social awkwardness, and wears his intellectual superiority to all around him like a second skin. But Cumberbatch also plays it in a way that the audience is immediately on his side. It helps to be playing opposite of Keira Knightly who plays Joan Clarke; an amazing woman in her own right and who stood side-by-side with the other cryptographers at Bletchley Park as an equal. In the movie, their relationship brings out the humanity in Turing.

There is a thru-line in the movie that ties the three parts of the story together. It is said by three different people: Turing’s not-quite boyfriend when Turing was in boarding school as a boy, Turing himself as he hires Joan to work at Bletchley Park and Joan when she is comforting Turing after he has been on his forced chemical castration regimen.

“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”

It is a great line, an emotional line, and a line that puts a spotlight on Turing’s humanity and brilliance for all to see.

Conclusion

In 1999, Time Magazine named Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century for his role in the creation of the modern computer. The editors said,

“The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”

Turing’s life is both inspiring and horrifying. I am amazed at the paradigm-shifting insights Turing gave to the world in such a short time and appalled at what the world did to him because of ignorance and the need to keep secrets hidden from the world. I have a soft spot for genius scientists anyway, but because of his meteoric rise and subsequent spectacular crash to the ground, Alan Turing is one of my favorites. The movie, The Imitation Game, brings that story to the masses and Cumberbatch’s performance makes Turing accessible; makes him a hero.

You should see this movie, and like always I welcome good discussion of movies, books and other things that do a good job highlighting the giants in the history of science and computing. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Resources

2 Reader Comments

  1. I have discovered Alan Turing in the 80’s when first reading “Gödel, Escher, Bach etc. ” from Douglas Hofstadter. Going from Gödel to Turing was fast and easy. Although not a scientist I’m a reader of science papers and books (thanks to Scientific American).
    Without having read anything detailed on his actual life I knew nearly all that mattered.
    On my modest scale, when I succeeded publishing my first novel in December 2013, not surprisingly Alan Turing had a short but decisive role to play (situated in 1945).
    Your paper is an accurate report of the mixed feeling of admiration of the genius and the shame to know how he has been let down.
    Since I follow Alan Turing Years I know more details and gather hope.
    Thank you for your contribution.
    Antoine Cantenot
    Incalculable – Antoine Cantenot. Roman http://www.bouquineo.fr/products/incalculable

  2. Hi,

    In the movie, the police officers charged him for having “indecent behaviour”. This, with time, lead to his death (being it suicide or not). What I would like to know, if you can help me is, according to what principles did the police officers of that time blamed him of having “indecent behaviour”?

    Based on what do people tell if this or that is good or bad? For me, if you do not hurt anyones life in any way and do not hurt yourself, then all is good, besides, the human brain is so, so complex that I think no one can fully and deeply understand why any person behaves in a particular way.

    Appart from the above, being good or bad is something I find more related to interest than to any other thing. And this civilization is based on “interest” mainly.

    Please let me know what you think. Best regards.

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