British computer scientist Alan Turing was born 100 years ago (his birthday was Saturday). When he came into the world in 1912, there were of course, no computers. People did their own computing the tedious, old-fashioned way.
Probably most people think of Isaac Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics when they think artificial intelligence, but it is Alan Turing’s Turing Test – a test to determine if a machine could think – that they ought to remember. For it was Turing who became the architect of the modern computer and father of artificial intelligence, permitting homophobes like Bryan Fischer to peck away at their keyboard day after day spewing hate and bigotry throughout the World Wide Web.
Every time you see a conservative website, from World Net Daily and it’s Pink Swastika propaganda to hate groups like the American Family Association, think about the gay man who made it all possible – not to mention the small matter of helping win World War II – before being forcibly sterilized as a result of a misguided “cure” for homosexuality involving estrogen therapy, and dying prematurely at age 41.
As biographer David Leavitt noted in the Washington Post this weekend, “From early in his adolescence, Turing understood that he was gay and saw nothing wrong with it. If the society in which he lived criminalized homosexuality, he believed the fault lay with the society, not with the men and women it vilified.”
Turing has remained largely unknown. His work at Bletchley Park, where his thinking machine (the Bombe) cracked the German Enigma code, remained a secret till long after his death (the 1970s), robbing him of the credit he deserved as father of computer science and artificial intelligence.
He has lived on in popular culture, however obliquely. Though professional wrestler Chris Jericho took the name “Jericho” from the Helloween album, Walls of Jericho, his signature move, the Codebreaker, is clearly a tribute to the character based on Turing, Thomas Jericho, played by Dougray Scott in 2001’s Enigma. (itself featured in 100 Greatest War Films, lending the fictional Turing more fame than the real one)
Before Turing, as Google noted in a tribute, computer “was a profession, not an object.” After Turing, people would not need to do their own computing; his computing machine would do it for them:
Turing’s breakthrough came in 1936 with the publication of his seminal paper “On Computable Numbers” (PDF). This introduced two key concepts, “algorithms” and “computing machines”—commonplace terms today, but truly revolutionary in the 1930’s:
- Algorithms are, in simplest terms, step-by-step instructions for carrying out a mathematical calculation. This is where it all started for programming since, at its core, all software is a collection of algorithms.
- A computing machine—today better known as a Turing machine—was the hypothetical device that Turing dreamed up to run his algorithms. In the 1930’s, a “computer” was what you called a person who did calculations—it was a profession, not an object. Turing’s paper provided the blueprint for building a machine that could do any computation that a person could, marking the first step towards the modern notion of a computer.
It’s really quite remarkable when you think about it, though we seldom do today. Many people have grown up with computers and as is the way with such things, we tend to take them for granted. But we should not. That we do is thanks to Turing.
Google says “It’s no exaggeration to say he’s a founding father of every computer and Internet company today.”
It was long believed Turing took a bite of a cynanide-laced apple a la the poisoned apple in Snow White but a report by the BBC casts doubt on his end, Turing expert Prof Jack Copeland pointing out that the apple was never actually tested for cyanide. It appears in death Turing remained a victim of institutional homophobia with the coroner, Mr JAK Ferns declaring: “In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.”
Copeland says “What he meant by “of his type” is unclear” but it seems clear enough that a man “of his type” was a gay man.
The enduring tragedy of Turing’s life is that the man who helped win World War II, saving millions of lives, was threatened with imprisonment for his sexual preferences rather than awarded a medal.
It is perhaps not unexpected that Bryan Fischer, who recently compared gays to cannibals, did not mark Turing’s birthday with so much as a nod, but he ought to have, and he ought to give thanks to this gay genius every time he sits down to blog another homophobic rant.
How Fischer and other fundamentalist gay-bashers rationalize the computer’s existence thanks to a gay man whom they believe must have been controlled by a demon, is anyone’s guess. Turing himself saw the dilemma, penning what Copeland calls a “mordant syllogism”:
Turing believes machines think.
Turing lies with men.
Therefore machines cannot think.
Copeland explains, “What he feared most, in other words, was that his prosecution would be used as an excuse to kill his ideas. Thank God he was wrong.
Thank God indeed, Bryan Fischer.
Images from Wikimedia Commons