The odds are good that you are alive to read this because of someone most people have never heard of: Alan Turing.
Sure, most people who are involved in tech have heard his name.
But outside of the tech field, it may as well be that he was never born.
Which is ironic, because if Turing had not been born, most of us living today would not exist. I am convinced of this.
Turing was one of those very rare geniuses that mankind is exceedingly stingy in producing. He was interested in numbers before he could read. And once he could read, he would create words (“quockling,” for the noise made by seagulls fighting over food). Today he would probably be diagnosed with having a form of Asperger’s Syndrome, for he was literal-minded — social cues and such other sub-rosa human touches didn’t penetrate his head. Although this eventually doomed him, before that happened it enabled him to concentrate on tasks with a definiteness of purpose that was astounding and to go deeper into subjects than most of his contemporaries.
But it wasn’t his literal mindedness alone that doomed him. The overarching characteristic of Turing that brought about his downfall and premature death was that he was homosexual. Worse: he saw nothing wrong with being so!
It is very rare for history to revolve on the axis of just one person, but in the case of Turing, I think an argument could be made that had he never been born — or died before maturity — Nazi Germany would have triumphed over the forces of freedom and the world would be a far darker place than it is even today.
Turing was the linchpin for cracking the Nazi encryption method used during World War II. The Enigma code, as it is commonly known, allowed Nazi U-boats, for instance, to operate freely in the Atlantic and to sink supply ships headed to England.
The code was first cracked by an incredible team of Polish cryptanalysts — led by Marian Rejewski — but two events led to their having to discontinue the effort: Poland’s vulnerability to a Nazi invasion and further encryption methods added to the Enigma machine. The decryption effort shifted to Bletchley Park in England with Turing designing the machine needed to crack the code:
Early on in his stay at Bletchley, it had become evident to Turing that the only way to break a cipher created by a machine would be with a machine. The insight was a variation on the one that had led him to write “Computable Numbers.” [A paper in which he envisioned not only what are today commonly called Turing Machines, but also the first general-purpose computer, forerunner of what we all use today!] This time, however, the machine in question could not remain merely hypothetical. He had to build it.
The result was the second generation bombe [a machine originally so named by the Poles], both faster and more technically complex than its Polish forbear. Also bigger: more than six and a half feet high and seven feet wide, and weighing a ton. In essence, this mechanical behemoth simulated the efforts of thirty Enigma machines working at once. The rotors–ninety of them–were mounted on the face of the immense cabinet, a glance at the back of which revealed more than ten miles of wire connected to contact points on the rotors. The bombe could be temperamental, giving its operators electric shocks or nipping at their fingers. It leaked oil and regularly jammed. But it worked, and eventually a whole series of bombes was commissioned, each one given a unique name. (These included Victory, Otto, Eureka, and Agnus Dei.)
Designing the bombe gave Turing the opportunity, at long last, to fulfill a lifelong dream. As a child he had drawn a blueprint for a typewriter. After writing “Computable Numbers,” he had made significant progress toward constructing both the electronic multiplier and the machine to test out the zeros of the Riemann zeta function. But he had never actually completed any of his machines. Now, at Bletchley, he was being given the chance not just to apply principles of mathematical logic to the actual construction of a machine but to oversee its installation and put it to work. For the miracle of the bombe was that this ungainly conglomeration of multiwire cables, brushes, and switches operated entirely according to the methods Turing had learned as a result of his deep immersion in the world of [Gottlob] Frege and [Bertrand] Russell; indeed, as each bombe clicked its way through thousands of eliminations and checks each day, it was as if the heartbeat of logic itself was being heard. [pgs. 180-181]
Post-war, Turing again turned to computing machinery, developing a machine called ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). It distinguished itself from two competing contemporaneous designs — ENIAC, created by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, and EDVAC, created by John von Neumann — in that it would, in Turing’s words,
tackle whole problems. Instead of repeatedly using human labour for taking material out of the machine and putting it back in at the appropriate moment all this will be looked after by the machine itself.
There will positively be no internal alterations to be made even if we wish suddenly to switch from calculating the energy levels of the neon atom to the enumeration of groups of order 720. [pg. 202]
Even at the planning stage of ACE, Turing was prescient in regards to what would constitute true machine intelligence:
I would say that fair play must be given to the machine. Instead of it sometimes giving no answer we could arrange that it gives occasional wrong answers. But the human mathematician would likewise make blunders when trying out new techniques. It is easy for us to regard these blunders as not counting and give him another chance, but the machine would probably be allowed no mercy. In other words then, if a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent. [pg. 205]
“Social politics” (the likeability of Turing) scuttled the ACE. It was never built. Had it been, today’s computers would be different in ways we can’t imagine.
Turing, disappointed, eventually turned to biology:
[...] [A]ll his papers on computer intelligence mention the prospect of building a machine on the model of the brain. Now he took up this intriguing notion from the other side.
The question that preoccupied him was basic: could mathematical models be constructed for the processes of biological growth, or morphogenesis, as it was more technically termed? Previously Turing had focused on whether mechanical systems could be designed that mirrored the process of human thought. Now he wanted to know whether mathematical theory might provide a basis for investigating physiology. [pgs. 263-264]
What might have been!
Turing’s doom began by engaging a “rent boy” (young male prostitute). Shortly afterward, his home was burgled. He called the police.
[...]Turing took it for granted that the police would back his kind against [the rent boy], [but] he was dreadfully mistaken.
[...][T]he police [...] returned–not to report to Turing on the progress of their investigation, but to tell him they “knew all about” his affair with [the rent boy]. They had put two and two together, and now, instead of arresting the thief, they arrested his victim. The charge was gross indecency with another male: the same crime of which Oscar Wilde had been convicted, and for which he had been sent down, more than fifty years before.
The little that was left of Alan Turing’s life after his arrest was a slow, sad descent into grief and madness. Tried on morals charges, he was “sentenced”–in lieu of prison–to undergo a course of estrogen treatments intended to “cure” him of his homosexuality. The estrogen injections had the effect of chemical castration. Worse, there were humiliating side effects. The lean runner got fat. He grew breasts.[pgs. 267-268]
The man who saved his nation from Doctor Mengele wound up being a victim of a Mengele-like protocol in his own country!
Alan Turing was found dead by his housekeeper on June 8, 1954. He had taken his life by biting into an apple coated with cyanide.
What might the tech industry be like today, had he not been hounded to suicide by an ungrateful nation? What advances in science have we been deprived of? Is it farfetched that had Turing not existed, the Nazis could have won?
The extent of his contribution to the war effort–of which he never spoke during his lifetime–should not be underestimated, and though it would probably be an exaggeration to say that without Turing the Allies would not have won the war, it is reasonable to suppose that without him it would have taken them several more years to do it. At the same time, had the British authorities known that Turing was homosexual, they might have refused to let him anywhere near Bletchley, in which case, as his friend Jack Good observed, “we might have lost the war.” [pgs. 188-189]
Remember that when you encounter smug self-righteous bastards such as these. Do people such as that know they owe their lives to someone they’d scorn as a “homo,” “fag,” or “queer”? Given a choice by a just deity, I’d exchange the lot of them to bring back Turing!
[Excerpts Copyright © 2006 David Leavitt. Excerpts used without explicit permission under the Fair Use provisions of Copyright law. CopyNazis can go fuck themselves.]