Oct 31, 2018
Great Britain Pardons Father Of Modern Computing And Nerd Icon Alan Turing, For Gay
Great Britain has made a small step toward correcting one of the great injustices of the postwar era — not that it can ever be made right, of course — and has issued a posthumous pardon and apology to Alan Turing, the genius who helped break the German “Enigma” code during WWII and who pretty much invented the basis for programmable computers. Turing only made one small mistake: he was gay in England in the middle of the last century, and after he was convicted of “gross indecency” for loving another man, he was sentenced to chemical castration, which almost certainly led to his suicide in 1954. You know, one of those unfortunate side effects of protecting the traditional family.
Queen Elizabeth II pardoned Turing on Tuesday; justice minister Chris Grayling said the pardon was granted for “a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory.”
As the head of a group of mathematicians at a top secret military facility at Bletchley Park, Turing worked from information and a captured coding machine that Polish intelligence agents provided, to decipher messages sent using the Enigma machine, a code that the Germans assumed was unbreakable. Turing and his team built an electro-mechanical decoding machine (called the “bombe”) that was capable of far faster calculations than any previous device — “computers” were, at the time, the people who operated the machines. The Bletchley Park crew enabled Allied intelligence to decode and make use of intercepted German transmissions the same day they were sent — it’s no exaggeration to say that Turing’s work shortened the war and saved countless lives, although his story only became widely known long after his death because most of his group’s work remained classified until 1974. His service certainly didn’t help him escape prosecution for being a homosexual, which remained a criminal offense until 1967.
Turing has become a nerd icon in the past few decades; Neal Stephenson told a fictionalized version of Turing’s story as one of the twin plots in his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon, which helped spread awareness of who he was and what he’d achieved; the rise of the internet and geek culture has also spread the Turing cult. Turing proposed a test for artificial intelligence now known as the Turing Test — the idea (grossly oversimplified) is that some form of artificial intelligence will have been achieved when a computer can play the “imitation game” well enough to hold a typed “conversation” that’s indistinguishable from a conversation with a human. Attempts to create programs that mimic human interactions well enough to fool a human judge have given us conversation bots like “ELIZA” and “PARRY” as well as the Facebook posts of Sarah Palin.
And of course, there’s the upcoming movie The Imitation Game, currently in production and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Set for release sometime next year, it promises to have nerds of all genders completely swoony.
In 2009, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology to Turing, saying
without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.
A 2012 attempt to petition Parliament for a pardon in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth was unsuccessful because, in the inexorable logic of bureaucracy, Turing “was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.” The Queen’s pardon is rare, since it goes against a usual practice of only pardoning those who are innocent of a crime and whose family members request the pardon. But for everyone on the interwebs, it’s quite simply the right thing to have done. It’s not quite justice for a man who was all but murdered by the country that he helped rescue, but after all this time, it’s better than continuing to hide behind the laws of another, crueler time.