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On Alan Turing

I just read the UK Government has rejected a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing. While this is not surprising, it is an outrage. Why? On the one hand, because of the nature of his ‘crime’. On the other hand, because Turing is the one intellectual superhero of computing and therefore the internet. Not only should he be pardoned, but every computing device should have a little statue of him inside (Turing Inside), while the British Monarchy should celebrate ‘Thank you Alan Turing’ day every year. Look around you, you see all the beautiful things which would be impossible without computers and the net? Turing.

Alan Turing

Let us summarise a little bit of what Alan Turing actually did. He conceptualised a ‘universal machine’ – what we now call a universal Turing machine – and thus laid the groundwork for mathematical formalism in computing, meanwhile also proving Kurt Gödel’s solution to the decision problem in formal logic in his On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. He designed, built from scratch, and wrote the programs for the first electro-mechanical computing device – the Bombe – which also happened to solve the previously unsolvable problem of breaking the Wehrmaht/Luftwaffe Enigma encryption. As an aside, this resulted in the Allied command knowing every move the German army and air force were about to take, often before the generals responsible for executing those moves had received and decrypted their orders. It is also worth pointing out this happened at the very beginning of the war. Deciding this is not awesome enough, he then went on to solve – alone – the orders of magnitude more complex problem of the Kriegsmarine Enigma code, therefore effectively winning the war for the allied command on the Western front (this is beautifully narrated in Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon). Bored for challenges, while on a trip to the US  to impart his cryptographic knowledge to the fledgling US effort (there he met and massively influenced von Neumann) he started thinking about encrypting Churchill’s transatlantic phone calls, and off-handedly invented audio encryption. After the war, forbidden to speak about or in any way reveal his war contributions (imagine that), he went on to single-handedly invent the field of artificial intelligence in perhaps the awesomest academic article ever published – Computer Machinery and Intelligence. To top it all, he decided that since he cannot use any of his war effort work or even imply its potential ramifications (it was classified top secret until 2007), he would go on and invent the computer all over again – only better. And he went on to design, build, and write the programs for the first digital computer.

At this point you are asking yourself how did Her Majesty’s Government reward this intellectual force of nature? How much treasures, what honours, how many knighthoods did they heap on him? Well, for starters they forced him to undergo chemical castration via hormonal injections. Why? Because, you see, you cannot save Blighty, win the war, and invent modern computing while being gay. Sorry old chap, not allowed.

They then went on to publicly humiliate him, destroy his career, and finally push him to an apparent suicide.

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