One of the most important people in the modern history was a gay man. He was the first person to conceptualize the “thinking machine” we now call a computer, and he was the single person most responsible for saving the world from the Nazis. Yet the story ends tragically.
In 1936, at twenty four, Alan Turing announced that, “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence.” Taking advantage of Turing’s brilliance, the Allies made him a key member of the secret code cracking team at Bletchley Park where he and his thinking machines cracked the Nazi Enigma code. From that point on the Allies could intercept commands sent to German U-boats in real time, turning the course of the war. Sir Harry Hinsley, a veteran of the Bletchley Park team and the official historian of British Intelligence in World War II said that Turing’s work shortened the war “by not less than two years and probably by four years.”
Sadly, saving the world was not enough to prove a gay life acceptable in his day. Turing was convicted by a court for being a homosexual in 1952, a felony. Publicly humiliated and chemically castrated, his career and life destroyed, he committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.
The brilliance of Alan Turing remains current through the Turing Test, a challenge he developed to determine if machines can think. While it is dauntingly difficult to define thinking, Turning’s test proposed a profoundly human interaction. An interrogator asks questions of two unseen subjects using a keyboard. One of the subjects is human and the other a computer. The test is passed if the interrogator cannot tell which is subject is the machine. No computer has yet passed the Turing Test.
Now that we can see gay people as human beings, the world is seeing Turing for the genius he truly was. In 2000, Alan Turing was named one of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century by Time Magazine. In 2009 the British Prime Minister offered an official governmental apology to Alan Turing noting, “We’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” The science journal Nature recently devoted an entire issue to Turing, and there is a petition currently circulating to put Turing on the UK ten-pound note.
Turing said that when we build intelligent machines we are not creating souls, but rather building the mansions for the souls God creates. While touring Google a few years ago, science historian George Dyson noted:
I walked around and saw what they were doing and realized they were building a very large distributed AI, much as Turing had predicted. And I thought, my God, this is not Turing’s mansion — this is Turing’s cathedral. Cathedrals were built over hundreds of years by thousands of nameless people, each one carving a little corner somewhere or adding one little stone. That’s how I feel about the whole computational universe. Everybody is putting these small stones in place, incrementally creating this cathedral that no one could even imagine doing on their own.
Turing would be 100 this year.