Alan Turing, Father of Computer Science, Defied Stereotypes, the Nazis, and a Nation

Published 6/23/12
The Huffington Post

Today, June 23, cognitive scientists, tech enthusiasts, and gay activists will come together to celebrate Alan Turing. In the 1950s, Turing, along with colleague John von Neumann, reanimated human consciousness and inspired a century of technological determinism. The father of computer science and artificial intelligence, the man whose mathematical genius gave birth to the “conscious” machine via the Turing Test, would have turned 100 this month.

Think of how much of every day, every hour, is planned and assisted by computers, and you will catch a glimpse of the blinding legacy of the man whose gift of foresight was matched only by his unwavering curiosity and massive intellect. Alan Turing, the individual, put the whole of humanity first. That he might be thrown before a review board for engaging in consensual sex with another man seems ludicrous by today’s standards, especially considering how Turing saved Great Britain from the Nazis by breaking the infamous Enigma code. It’s timely still, the controversy that surrounds a man caught between the call of duty and a loyalty to self.

The Turing tragedy is worth considering, if only to remind us that despite a sustained shift away from sexual discrimination, science still hasn’t fully come to terms with the fact that one of its most influential icons was gay. Even as the mystery of Turing pervades public discourse, science, with its intransigently masculine veneer, quietly searches for a less problematic brand to helm the growing AI initiative deep into the millennium and beyond.

The Turing anomaly is enough to inspire bestsellers and blockbusters, but it’s the stained legacy we are most attracted to, the fall from grace that led our hero to despair and, subsequently, to suicide. Fitting that Hollywood has set its sights on the controversial figure. Imitation Game, the biopic by first-time screenwriter Graham Moore that documents the life of Turing, is currently in development. Moore’s epic screenplay is rumored to have reeled in seven figures from Warner Bros. and has attracted the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio to don the role of history’s most alluring mathematician.

Several years before his death, Turing was prosecuted for having sex with another man, which at that time was expressly forbidden. The e-petition to pardon Turing for “gross indecency” has surpassed 34,000 votes—this, several years after former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown unsuccessfully bestowed a posthumous apology to the wartime hero. It seems absurd now, during the year the Mayans predicted it would all end, that we might still be caught in a quagmire of sexuality. Surely a species as intelligent and connected as ours can expand its computing power past the petty prejudice of its less-evolved forebears. With Turing we missed a golden opportunity to reconcile faith with reason. We instead chose to ignore our common humanity, further separating science and spirituality in the process, betraying any beneficial conclusion that empathy might have offered a shared goal of survival.

As we celebrate the centennial it’s fitting to ask, what else might Turing have contributed had he not been nipped in his Achilles heel by the same brand of conservatism that blocks our view of progress today? The fact that many conservatives might sooner advocate for Alan Turing the fetus than they would for Alan Turing the man is not only an affront to those whose humanity transcends primitive notions of gender and sexuality but a reason to question the antiquated ideals that, to this day, prevent us from connecting on any real level—as a good number of current political debates would suggest.

The fact that Turing’s sexual encounters are still enough to detract from his profound contribution during World War II and to science in general, and that such encounters could possibly demand repayment in the form of prison time or chemical castration, reflects a troubled society whose obsession with the status quo has only served to alienate autonomy and innovation, the very building blocks of progress.

As we observe the Turing Centennial, we are wise to consider the greater value of judging a person based on sexual orientation alone. As his contributions to society will show, Alan Turing was a man who was greater than the sum of his parts. If only we had more like him.