Thursday, 1 January 2015

Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma by David Boyle Review

Alan Turing was a notable philosophical/mathematical figure in the advancement of computers and artificial intelligence. Known for his contributions at Bletchley Park (Britain’s codebreaking headquarters) during World War 2, Turing worked on cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code which was used in transmissions between the U-Boats and Nazi command. At Bletchley, he developed enhancements to a Polish bomb machine, which decrypted messages, to create the bombe, a machine that found the settings of Enigma.

Following the end of the war, Turing pursued his fascination with machines further and began conceptualising the modern computers that we use today. He also worked on the design of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) and came up with The Turing Test, which was a method to set a standard to determine if a machine was intelligent or not. The idea was that if the user couldn’t tell whether who they were talking with was a computer or a human, then a computer could be said to be intelligent.

Turing was also an unashamed homosexual at a time in Britain where, under the Labouchere Amendment, homosexuality was illegal (this same law also sentenced Oscar Wilde to 2 years hard labour). Turing was arrested in 1952 after talking about his boyfriend during a burglary and sentenced to oestrogen injections (chemical castration) that caused him to physically change (he grew breasts) and disrupt his thinking.

In 1954, at the age of 41, Alan Turing committed suicide by swallowing cyanide, perhaps as a result of his persecution as a gay man. A half-eaten apple was found alongside him and it was believed that the apple was the delivery method of the poison – Turing was obsessed with the Disney film Snow White where the apple sends Snow White into a deep sleep. The Labouchere Amendment was repealed in 1967 and it was only in 2013 that Queen Elizabeth II gave Turing an official pardon for his “crime”.

David Boyle’s Unlocking the Enigma is a brief, but informative, look at Turing’s life and work that covers all of the above, as well as many other things, in more detail. It also focuses on theories surrounding Turing’s death, that, perhaps because of his Intelligence work during the war and proclivity to take holidays abroad in countries near the Iron Curtain (where homosexual behaviour was more permissive), Turing was killed to keep him from giving away secrets – if that was what he was doing (unlikely). 

Boyle also mentions that Turing’s death was perhaps accidental given the dangerous experiments he was conducting with chemicals at the time, especially as his hormone punishment had ended and his friends claimed he wasn’t depressed at the time (though this theory is also unlikely).

Boyle does also heavily emphasise Turing as a gay martyr, which is fair given the harsh treatment all gay people suffered under the Labouchere Amendment, but especially as Turing didn’t hide his sexuality. He was years ahead of his time not just in his work with computers but with his social thinking too.

Unlocking the Enigma is a fine introduction/summary of Alan Turing’s work and life for readers unfamiliar with him and not looking for an in-depth study or lengthy biography of the great man.

Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma

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