Turing’s time

Last night we attended the world premiere of Sentences, Nico Muhly’s homage to Alan Turing, composed as a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. It was a lovely performance, consisting of seven sections, each relating to an aspect of Turing’s life. As Muhly said earlier in the week, they didn’t want to put together a typical gay tragedy, and in this they succeeded. Time will tell, of course, how durable of piece of composition it really is, but the Barbican crowd certainly enjoyed it, giving both Muhly, who conducted the glorious Britten Sinfonia, and Davies several standing ovations.

The libretto was by Adam Gopnik, whose day job is as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. In the program notes, Gopnik makes an interesting point—writing something new these days about Turing is like writing something new about Robin Hood. The myths have become so ingrained that’s it’s hard to come up with anything truly new. Turing has been not only rehabilitated, he’s nearly been canonized.

In 2012 the Royal Mail issued a stamp in his honour, and in honour of Bletchley Park, where Turing did significant work during World War II in breaking the German code. In 2013 the Queen pardoned him, only the fourth time a Royal Pardon has been exercised (and irrespective of one’s views, Turing did break existing law of the time, and so legally required a pardon.) And of course the various film portrayals, involving actors as diverse as Derek Jacobi and Benedict Cumberbatch (this discussion captures the two movies pretty well.) And he shows up in fiction too—most recently in Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century, and as a major character in Neal Stephenson’s Crytonomicon. I imagine he’s even been on the Simpsons—if not, he should have been by now.

Turing has entered our cultural landscape in a way that few others have, and he’s perhaps getting up there with Einstein as a cultural marker for intellectuals. It’s an odd combination—he’s certainly been a gay icon for some time, for decades perhaps since Alan Hodge’s first biography in the 1980s. But he has remained an intellectual lodestar as well, mainly because of his theoretical and actual work in computing theory and early thinking on what actually would constitute artificial intelligence. Turing clearly was the smartest guy in the room most of the time, and his achievement in breaking Enigma should not be understated (although it did rely, as he would acknowledge, on some yeoman work by some Polish cyrptographers.) He contributed to constructing Colussus, the world’s first programmable computer, at Manchester University, and ten others—all of which were destroyed by the British government after the war. All of this was brilliant work.

But it’s the Turing test that he is perhaps best known for. This comes out of a short paper he wrote in 1950 called Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Turing posited that machines could think. Actually, he refined this as a concept into something more manageable—can machines play the imitation game? Specifically, can machines, in answering questions posed by a human observer, answer in such a way that the human observer can’t tell if it’s talking to a machine or a human. This has been a seminal goal for the Artificial Intelligence community over the decades. There have been any number of competitions over the years, with the most recent—at the University of Reading—presenting a program that may have “passed”—although given the structures on how the questions could be asked, this claim has hardly been universally accepted. Computer scientists and AI workers continue to hammer away at the program.

So the search for intelligent machine life goes on. Whether this is a good thing is another question, of course—many of our dystopian future scenarios derive specifically from machines getting smart. And as we have commented before, robots keep getting smarter—as do refrigerators. But there’s no question that Turing’s time has come—this is going to be his century.

1 reply »

  1. interesting as always. i suspect turing maybe a bit like the “beautiful mind” guy, far more interesting as an idea than as an individual. he had his chance to define his life, now it’s our turn–for better or worse.