Friday, 11 September 2009

An apology for Alan Turing

Almost everyone in the IT field and many outside of it know who Alan Turing was. His famous Turing test is still the benchmark that AI developers use to judge whether a computer can 'think'. His work at Bletchley Park was instrumental in breaking the Enigma code and quite likely changed the course of WWII.

Turing was made to suffer by the British government after WWII after it became evident that he was homosexual. Eventually Turing committed suicide.

Finally he has an apology from the British government.

From the Spectator:

In early August this year, John Graham-Cumming, a computer programmer, presented a petition to the government asking to give the war time hero and scientific genius, Alan Turing, a posthumous apology for his prosecution in 1952. So far it has gained over 29,000 signatories (it only needed 500 to gain a response). Another petition was set up allowing people resident outside the UK to show their support, and there’s another 10,000 signatories on that one. I couldn’t urge you more strongly to add your own name to the list.

Turing was one of the most important and innovative scientists of the 20th century- a genius and a national hero. Situated at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, he designed a machine – the bombe - that could decipher Nazi enigma messages much faster than any other machine before it. It is quite probable that we would have lost the war without him.

Other than his vital effort at Bletchley Park he has come to be known as the father of modern computing science. He lade the foundations for the computer age with his paper, “On Computable Numbers” that led to the creation of the “Turing machine,” a thought process experiment that simulated the logic of a computer algorithm. As Time Magazine put it: "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."

Unfortunately, Turing’s life came to a premature and tragic end. In 1952 he was tried and convicted for gross indecency after his homosexual relationship with a 19-year-old Mancunian. His punishment was a choice between jail and probation on the condition of chemical castration via oestrogen. He chose the latter but it ruined his life. He suffered severe side effects and the consensus is that his conviction led to his suicide a year later. The treatment he received from a government he did so much for is despicable; an apology seems not just appropriate but long overdue.

The Spectator has a connection with Alan Turing. Donald Michie was one of Alan Turing’s closest colleagues at Bletchley Park, and his brother; James Michie (the famous poet) wrote for us in his later years as the setter of literary competitions. Under the pseudonym Jaspistos (Donald’s nickname for him) James entertained readers for thirty years with his inexhaustible wit and imagination until his death in 2007. He too would have urged you to sign the petition for Alan Turing -

by Harry Weskin

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