The Legacy of Alan Turing and The Imitation Game

New movie depicts the mathematician’s heroism cracking the German Enigma Code, yet he had his own tragic life story

18 November 2014
Excitement is building for the premiere of the film The Imitation Game, featuring British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as British mathematician Alan Turing, who lived a short but significant life from 1912 to 1954. Turing is often acknowledged as one of the founders of the “Information Age.” Not only due to the innovative mathematical analysis and the two computing machines developed during his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during World War II, which is the focus of the film, but also his pioneering work on computational mathematics that underpinned much of what has become modern computing. 

Professionally, Turing is perhaps best known for his work on the Manchester Mark I (arguably the first fully recognizable modern electronic computer); the concepts of the Turing Machine, which represents a universal model for the computer; and the Turing Test, his definition of human-like artificial intelligence. However, Turing has become even more of a cause célèbre because of his prosecution for being a homosexual—a chain of events that grates against 21st century sensibilities. In 1952, a burglary at Turing’s apartment in Manchester led authorities in England to conclude he was carrying on a gay relationship, which was a criminal offense in the country until 1967. He was charged with “gross indecency.”

He pled guilty and was given a choice of prison or hormonal treatment. He chose the latter, which greatly affected his health, and his conviction caused him to lose his security clearance and most of his consultancies and ability to travel outside the country. This mistreatment by the British authorities likely contributed to his death by cyanide at his own hand in 1954 just before his 42nd birthday. His family insisted that the act that deprived the world of his genius was an accident, not suicide.

Turing has been honored in many ways for his contributions. Immediately after the war, he was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an award that recognizes distinguished service to the arts and sciences. In the early 1960s, Stanford dedicated an auditorium in his name, and in 1966 the Association for Computing Machinery named its top computer science prize the Turing Award. His popularity among the public began to grow in the 1980s. That was in part because of increasing sensitivity to gay rights, but also because the secrecy surrounding Turing’s work began to lift. Earlier books on the role intelligence played in winning World War II alluded to the work performed at Bletchley Park, but thanks to gradual declassification of key events, Gordon Welchman, who worked with Turing at Bletchley, was finally able to write a full account of their work in 1982 called The Hut Six Story (a revised edition appeared in 1997).

The availability of previously hidden records combined with changing social views toward homosexuality led to an explosion of interest in Turing. In 1983, Andrew Hodges published the biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, on which the new film is based. A play about Turing (Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitmore) ran in London’s West End in 1987 and 1988, and was produced for television by the BBC in 1996. He was featured in the 2008 BBC documentary Dangerous Knowledge and the 2011 television documentary Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker. This April a choral work based on Turing’s life by James McCarthy premiered at the Barbican Hall, in London.

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the mistreatment of Turing by earlier administrations, and in 2013 he was officially pardoned of the charge of “gross indecency” by Queen Elizabeth II.

WHEN TURING MET CLAUDE SHANNON

Obviously, Turing never had an opportunity to speak or write much about his wartime experiences, almost all of which were still classified at the time of his death. Those who have looked closely at his work note his visit to the United States in 1943 to discuss code breaking with the Americans. That trip included a two-month stint at Bell Labs (then still in New York City) where he spent much of his time with Claude Shannon.  Shannon is not as well known as Turing to the general public but is every bit as important to the birth of the Information Age. In 1948, Shannon published a landmark paper, which essentially created communication theory as a scientific discipline. If the Information Age is based not just on computers as computational devices but even more on computers as communication devices, then we owe our current innovations to Claude Shannon.

While Hodges was completing his manuscript on Turing in 1982, he did not know that Robert Price, a professor at Cambridge, was conducting an oral history interview with Claude Shannon. In 2003, the Robert Price Documentary Trust transferred the oral history to the IEEE History Center, citing it as the best repository for such an important document because it holds more than 600 oral histories of prominent engineers and makes the transcripts freely available on the IEEE Global History Network.

In the interview, Shannon described what is the equivalent of about eight pages on his interactions with Turing at Bell Labs and a reciprocal visit he made to England in 1950. This is a fantastic resource that anyone interested in the history of information theory should peruse. Interestingly, in Shannon’s telling of the meeting 40 years later and with faded memory, they had great respect for each other, but almost no mutual impact. In fact, he recalls Turing resisting his ideas about communication channels, which Shannon was just then beginning to develop. Yet later researchers blended the ideas of these two great individuals to create the digital world we know today.

We look forward to seeing how the filmmakers of The Imitation Game portray Turing’s contributions and this seminal meeting.

Michael Geselowitz is the senior director of the IEEE History Center.

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