Alan Turing’s legacy in troubled times

Wednesday 01 Jul 2020

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Just around the corner from the vibrant bustle of Canal Street in the heart of Manchester, a bronze-cast likeness of Alan Turing rests at the centre of a small park called Sackville Gardens. Turing’s life-sized statue is purposefully unassuming. He sits on a park bench, his collar unbuttoned. Two pens peek awkwardly out of his left pocket, and in his right hand rests an apple—a symbol both of the Newtonian revolution that heralded the birth of modern science and of the woeful demise of perhaps its greatest mind.

On any given day, visitors from all across the world can be found here communing with Turing. They sit next to him on the bench, take pictures with him, bring him flowers, flags, cards, and balloons. During winter, some wrap scarves around his neck to help him combat the northern England chill.           

When I journeyed to Manchester for a day, in April of last year, to speak at the Information Commissioner’s Office’s national Data Protection Practitioners’ Conference, I brought with me only a notebook upon which I had scribbled a few remarks and a pair of old trainers that I had planned to change into so that I could sneak away from the conference and travel by foot across the city to visit Turing at Sackville Gardens.

The sessions ran long that day, so, by the time I reached the park, darkness had fallen over Greater Manchester. However, as I approached Turing’s memorial, I caught glimpse of a remarkable sight. Someone had placed three burning candles at his feet, leaving the statue aglow amidst the dimness of surrounding night and illuminating the carved letters on the plaque that lies before him. A life summed up all-too-imperfectly in eleven words: “Father of Computer Science; Mathematician; Logician; Wartime Codebreaker; Victim of Prejudice.”  

A life summed up all-too-imperfectly in eleven words: “Father of Computer Science; Mathematician; Logician; Wartime Codebreaker; Victim of Prejudice.”  

Looking back now just a bit over a year later, this image of Turing, illuminated in a sea of night, really sticks. As humanity remains in the grip of an unforgiving pandemic that continues to victimise the vulnerable and anti-racism protests around the globe signal the hurdles of systemic discrimination, injustice, and prejudice that contemporary society has yet to scale, the legacy of Alan Turing’s lifework, his commitment to bettering the human condition through science, and the lessons learned from his tragic end endure as a torchlight that must ever more be cast on the problems of the present.

Turing’s legacy shines outward toward the transformative possibilities of the digitally connected planet he helped to create, inward toward an affirmation of the moral demands for self-expression and dignity he refused to disavow in the face of persecution, and forward toward the better human future he dedicated his life to advancing. The world we all live in would simply look a lot different had Turing’s genius, his devotion to the unbounded community of collaborative scientific discovery, and his unflagging tenacity never shone. The world we will inhabit in the future will be all the dimmer if we are not still guided by this light.    

Turing’s lifelong journey of discovery

When anyone on earth opens a laptop, picks up a smartphone, or engages with the many networked devices of the internet of things, they are using technologies made possible, in no small measure by the insights of a 23-year-old Fellow at King’s College Cambridge named Alan Mathison Turing. In 1936, Turing figured out the solution to a problem that had stumped a generation of mathematicians, namely ‘How do you define an effective calculation?’ —the question of how to define an algorithm.

Using just the image of a linear tape divided evenly into squares, a list of symbols, and a few basic rules, he drew a sketch to show the step-by-step process of how a human being can carry out any calculation, from the simplest operation of arithmetic to the most complex nonlinear differential equation.

Not only did Turing’s remarkable invention (now known simply as the Turing machine) show what it means to compute a number by showing how humans do it, he created, in the process, the idea behind the modern general purpose computer. His astonishingly simple innovation ushered in the digital age. It is all but impossible to estimate the historical impact of Turing's computational revolution, but let it suffice to say that familiar markers like the “information age,” the “space age,” and the “age of big data” are directly downstream from it. 

Turing was a prophet, a polymath, and a pioneer, who from the very earliest age, displayed the sort of single-minded curiosity and wonderment about the world that Albert Einstein once remarked “stands at the cradle of true art and science.” Already at the age of 14, Turing showed an almost superhuman dedication to his learning, cycling 60 miles from his home to his school in Southampton, so that his studies wouldn’t be interrupted by the General Strike of 1926. At 15 and a half, Turing took it upon himself to read Einstein’s The Theory of Relativity and prepared for his own reference an intricate and strikingly incisive synopsis. Not long after this, he taught himself the basics of quantum physics while his classmates were still struggling with baby algebra and trigonometry. After reading maths at Cambridge on a scholarship, Turing was elected at the exceedingly young age of 22 as a Fellow of King’s. 

As is now popular knowledge, when the Second World War broke out in 1939, Turing became a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. Less well known, though, is that as a mathematician, he was initially looked at with tremendous scepticism by his fellow British cryptanalysts. Turing’s fellow Bletchley codebreaker and mathematician, Peter Twinn later wrote, there were “doubts about the wisdom of recruiting a mathematician as they were regarded as strange fellows, notoriously unpractical.”

Such abstract thinkers, it was felt, lacked “appreciation of the real world,” according to Twinn. Turing would prove them wrong. Within two years, he and his team in Hut 8 had created a decrypting device that cracked the code of the German Enigma. By 1943, Turing’s decrypting machines, “bombes,” as they were called, were deciphering 84,000 Enigma messages a month (two a minute, every hour of every day). It is conservatively estimated that these efforts shortened the Second World War by about two years and saved  millions of lives.     

True to form, however, Turing would continue his no-holds-barred pursuit of the vocation of mathematical and scientific discovery until the end of his short life. After the War, in 1947, he gave the first public lecture on what would come to be known as artificial intelligence. Just a year later, he made significant discoveries in genetic algorithms and neuron modelled computing—anticipating by some sixty years the explosion of so-called deep learning and neural-net based computation that dominates the scene today. 

A few years later, at the age of 40, Turing would shift his interest to the field of life sciences and undertake study in what has now come to be known as computational or mathematical biology. This research would culminate in a paper called “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis,” which employed real non-linear partial differential equations to explain pattern formation in developing biological systems, thereby opening novel paths to mathematically exploring the chemistry of life. Turing’s death, at 42, would cut this new trajectory of investigation tragically short. 

Alan Turing statue in Manchester. Image by philcurtis from Pixabay
Alan Turing statue in Manchester. Image by philcurtis from Pixabay 

A light that casts no shadows

The legacy of Alan Turing indubitably bears the beacon of his untiring and lifelong commitment to the pursuit of scientific discovery. But this is not all. Turing’s deep sense of the practical and humane character of this endeavour made his science warm-blooded and vascular. As Ralph Waldo Emerson might say, if you cut Turing’s mathematics, it would bleed. It was as eminently human as it was intrinsically social, not just in the sense that it viewed its own problems and methods as animated within a human community constantly at grips with real-world challenges, but also in the way that it saw itself as part of a collective undertaking steered by human initiative, purpose and values.

Turing liked to say that mathematical insight and innovation originate in two things: first, in “common sense”—in our practical engagement with the world and in our ongoing efforts to cooperatively solve the problems it poses—and, second, in ”intellectual and cultural search”—in an indefinite project of collaborative discovery carried out by and for the benefit of humanity as a whole. These dual components  constitute the lifeblood of the heritage of responsible research and innovation that has developed in the three-quarters-of-a-century after Turing’s death. They are also the driving force behind The Alan Turing Institute’s commitment to building an open, interdisciplinary and inclusive community of research in the pursuit of societally beneficial innovation. 

This charge to do good through scientific ingenuity, however, also bears the marks of the lessons learned from Turing’s mistreatment at the hands of homophobic discrimination and oppression. The thrust to responsible discovery comes with special obligations that extend beyond the production of societally beneficial works to the active cultivation of the social conditions necessary for diverse, equitable, and inclusive participation in the research and innovation processes that lie behind that production.

Turing suffered greatly for his insistence on speaking the truth about his own sexuality. Under the threat of imprisonment for being gay, he endured twelve brutal months of chemical castration the year before his untimely death, and, despite his immeasurable service to his country and to humankind, he was stripped of his security clearance by the Crown and subsequently surveilled as a danger to its national interests.  

While the past decade or so has posthumously brought Turing official apologies, an election as BBC’s icon of the 20th century, and a place on the £50 note, these important signifiers of changes in cultural and historical attitudes are, by and large, ultimately cosmetic. They are merely outward tokens which fall short of the actual living labour of social transformation that can alone do justice to his enduring legacy.

As innovators, citizens, and human beings alive to the traditions of oppression and systemic discrimination that sealed Alan Turing’s appalling fate, we bear a unique responsibility to engage steadfastly in such transformative labour. We must act to to advance the rights of all human beings to be accepted without exception, to realise their full selves in their professional and public lives, and to be able to freely speak and live their own truths. This involves striving collectively toward a world where equal access to education, opportunity and achievement empowers every person to choose their own distinctive path. It also involves building a fairer and freer society where the actualisation of equity, diversity, and inclusion across all areas of human experience is treated both as a necessity of human flourishing and as a prerequisite to the just organisation of social life.     

We must remember, though, that confining ourselves to an embrace of the importance of concepts like diversity, inclusion and equity is not nearly enough. Merely identifying with these ideas in the abstract and parading them as institutionally legitimating platforms can easily serve the purposes of established power by turning ethical imperatives to act into the passive, self-edifying rhetoric of the privileged. On the contrary, following Turing’s own lead, we must seek out the practical and material conditions that enable the realisation of these concepts and make these happen. We must also follow the lead of those with lived experience of marginalisation and discrimination so that the path beaten out of an inequitable present is one of universal empowerment, participatory parity, listening and learning.

This is especially critical in the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence where socioeconomic, racial and gender homogeneity has historically been the rule and diversity, inclusion and equity a troublingly sparse exception and where growing digital divides, at both local and global levels, continue to intractably challenge the universal and inclusive actualisation of equitable innovation writ large.

Being illuminated by the legacy of Alan Turing in these troubled times involves carrying forward his own unbending devotion to changing the world one day, one calculation, one interaction at a time. Indeed, it may well be said that the humble but revolutionary commission to engage in the tireless, everyday labour needed to redress the social ills that spelled his hideous end is one of the linchpins of Turing’s true legacy. It is a legacy whose light casts no shadows. It does not illuminate from above, projecting its beam downward from an advantaged vista of enlightenment where the normalcy of privilege and the pervasiveness power cast fixed shadows of oppression on those excluded, marginalised and abused. Rather, it illumines from between, from within the collaborative practices of human beings speaking and acting together in the ends of transforming common life toward more just conditions. Here, in the day-by-day, inch-by-inch, brick-by-brick practices of collective emancipation, Alan Turing still speaks directly to us: “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

Some further readings about Turing’s life and work: