gay war hero memory at code red


[ An earlier version of this article, ‘Code red for WWII code breaker’ appeared in the May-June 2012 issue of The Western Independent ]

Alan Turing, WWII codebreaker.

Away from the fierce naval gun battles and front lines of History’s deadliest conflict, a quiet math genius was busy calculating sums that would save millions of lives.

Australia is missing among World War II allied countries marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. The British code-breaker used mathematical logic to decipher the wartime German ‘Enigma’ device. Nazi generals used the random code machine, thought to be ‘unbreakable’, to send secret battle plans.

Historian Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine, says Turing’s contribution was central to the Allies’ success, saving potentially millions of lives during WWII.

“Turing devised the technique for automating the cracking of the naval Enigma code,” Dr Watson says.

“Historians generally agree the code breaking work shortened WWII by up to 2 years.”

Watson, ‘The Universal Machine’

These simulations also enabled Turing’s contribution to the first modern-day computer.

“The requirements for handling massive  amounts of data quickly meant it became obvious the process needed to be mechanised,

“If the war hadn’t forced these requirements then I think the development of the computer, both in the US and the UK would have been much slower.”

University of Wollongong digital communications lecturer Teodor Mitew says Turing’s genius lay in simulating all the mathematical possibilities of the Enigma device. The intelligence proved decisive to the Allied forces in crucial naval battles.

“His contributions are incalculable, yet he remains a largely unknown figure in Australia,” he says.

The Turing Centenary Advisory Report lists WWII allies Canada, France, Britain, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and The United States among 13 nations to host commemorative events this year marking the centenary of Turing’s birth. No Australian events have been listed however.

“The reason Turing has not been commemorated in this country has been his relative obscurity and the secret nature of his contributions,” Dr Mitew says.

“Put simply, these don’t fit the heroic war narrative our general public has been fed.”

Earlier this year, British newspaper The Guardian reported on a petition signed by 21,000 British citizens urging their government to posthumously pardon Turing’s criminal record for homosexual activity recorded shortly after his war service. The petition was unsuccessful, but the centenary has brought renewed efforts to obtain the necessary 100,000 signatures to force a vote in parliament. As of this writing, 35,000 citizens have signed. Moves have also been underway to feature Turing on the £10 note.

Various biographical accounts detail Turing being forced to undertake ‘chemical castration’ for his homosexuality under threat of a  prison sentence. In 1952, he was removed from his official position. He died two years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.

Dr Mitew says it is “just not enough” that Australians have forgotten about Turing’s life-saving work.

“You have this intellectual giant, with contributions ranging from philosophy through mathematics [to] computer science, and biology,” he says.

“Due to political and historical reasons he has been pushed into complete obscurity.”

Dr Watson says Australians, many of whose lives Turing helped save, should honour his services to the Allied war effort and urge the British government to pardon Turing’s criminal conviction.

“The law under which he was convicted was unjust and I think society would send a clear message by pardoning him – Thanks, you deserved to be treated better.” ♦

[ Photos courtesy Dr Ian Watson. Excerpts from Turing’s Computing and Machine Intelligence previously featured in imodernreview article ‘a new turing test’ ]


a new ‘turing test’

Alan Turing [Photo from mark_am_kramer]

Away from the front lines of the world’s deadliest conflict, a quiet math genius was busy making the calculations to save the lives of millions.

During WWII, Alan Turing’s logic broke apart the seemingly impenetrable random code messages of the Nazi ‘Enigma’ device, and thus delivered into the hands of Allied forces intelligence in numerous battles. Much of our knowledge of ‘machine intelligence’ can also be attributed to Turing’s pioneering theories and development of Pilot Ace, the world’s first multi-task computer.

In 1950, Alan Turing posed the question, ‘Can Machines Think?’ He proposed the key to achieving a thinking machine was not to replicate the adult mind, but that of the child-learning mind. A process somewhat akin to evolution could be imitated, gradually mutating a device through ‘education’, that is, overlaying new programming by introducing algorithms of increasing complexity. In this way, connections established from base knowledge, adjusted by mutation and selected on a basis of success would achieve the best approximation of human thought, teaching a machine to think.

Alan Turing, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950) in Richard Dawkins (Ed) The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008)

He would devise an experiment referred to as the ‘Turing Test’ for theoretically evaluating machine intelligence.

These ideas are presented chapter-form in Richard Dawkins’ superbly edited collection, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

For his weighty contributions, Alan Turing might justly have held a position of wide fame and honour today. The tragic story of Turing’s own life and the circumstances of his suicide however, reflect a new challenge for the modern age.

As Richard Dawkins writes,

After the war, when Turing’s role was no longer top secret, he should have been knighted and feted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed for a ‘crime’, [homosexual activity] committed in private, which harmed nobody.

Turing was arrested, forced in 1952 to undertake ‘chemical therapy’ for his homosexuality and was removed from any official position. He died 2 years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.

Just 2 years ago, a petition in Britain lead to a full apology from the British government for its treatment of Turing, delivered September 2009 by then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The upcoming centenary of Turing’s birth has brought a new focus to honouring his legacy to modern innovation. The University of Auckland, and the UK Newton Institute will both be devoting entire lecture programs to his mathematical and computing legacy. He is already the subject of a play, an opera, and a new film focussing on his important work.

A new UK petition seeks to posthumously pardon Turing of his criminal record. As of this writing, the petition has already garnered 15,000 UK signatures. If successful, the petition would be a fitting symbol,  if only a symbol, for a greater modern challenge for society, a new ‘Turing Test’ if you will.
The ‘test’ would be to discover and reward the eccentric innovators in our midst, while developing more complex programming to successively overlay and cancel our own obsolete ‘programming’ – our prejudices. In so doing, we may hope to evolve our own human intelligence, ironically like one of Turing’s machines:
We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all the intellectual fields…We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
Alan Turing
When they do, this competition will form a fitting test. We need only think ♦

Trailer for upcoming ‘Alan Turing Decoded’ viewable hereThe Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008) Richard Dawkins (Ed.) is available from Oxford University Press. [Turing photo attributed and sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]