– By Paulie Spiceflow –
When you ask someone who were the most influential figures of the 20th century, you’ll probably hear names like Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, or maybe Elvis Presley. Certainly all of these were influential but one man arguably contributed more than any other to our modern world: Alan Turing. The brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptoanalyst, and philosopher is the subject of the Oscar-nominated movie The Imitation Game. While not a science fiction movie, it should be seen by science fiction fans and nerds everywhere.
Alan Turing was a Cambridge mathematician that volunteered to help the British break the Nazi’s unbreakable enigma code. Enigma allowed the Germans to communicate over radio frequencies without concern the Allies would intercept the transmissions. Turing joined a small team of the best mathematicians in the country, including Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley), who proved her genius when she solved one of his nearly unsolvable puzzles. The team broke the code, changing the course of the war.
The Imitation Game is not really about puzzles or codes. It is about the relationship between oddness and genius. Turing was an incredibly awkward man, with almost no friends. It is likely he had Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. As a child, he was teased and tormented before meeting his first real friend Christopher, who would play an important part in his life. When he became a prominent mathematician, his colleagues found him intolerably rude, impossible to work with. Yet this intolerable man built the machine that successfully solved the enigma code. The ability to decipher Nazi communications gave the Allies a decisive advantage. Historians believe breaking enigma likely shortened the war by two to four years.
Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant as Turing, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Keira Knightley is impressive as well, playing the only woman working on breaking the enigma code. In one scene, a British proctor refuses to seat Joan Clarke for Turing’s exam, which was used to select the members of his team. In 1939 Britain women were secretaries not mathematicians. Clarke battles against the traditional role for women, having to lie to her parents about her job, which involves an unmarried woman working with a bunch of men. Such an arrangement was socially unacceptable. Instead, Turing told her parents she would be a secretary living and working with the women on the base. Turing finds her incredibly useful to his project and proposes marriage in order to stop her from returning home. One problem: he’s homosexual. Not only an oddball, Turing is considered a pervert in the eyes of 1939 British society, where homosexuality is a crime.
The struggles of Turing and Clarke is at the center of the movie. Both were geniuses, well ahead of their peers yet social norms put one barrier after another in front of them. Both were insulted, ignored, or dismissed as weird or insane. The idea that either of them would amount to anything was ludicrous. One of the great lines of the movie is:
Sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.
The life of Turing is a lesson for humanity. Dependence on social norms, criminalizing the weird or unusual, comes at a human cost not only for the victims of the world’s brutality but also the world itself. Many of the greatest inventions originate in men and women who were dismissed as weird or defective. It is believed Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein had Asperger Syndrome as well. Einstein was even considered “slow” by his family and peers at an early age. More recently, Bill Gates and Temple Grandin, experienced teasing and bullying by those around them. Most didn’t expect much from them. No one is teasing them now.
Where would we be if The British Navy fired Turing because of his struggles in working with others? What if Joan Clarke was turned away from the exam? What if Newton’s family and friends insisted he get a regular job? What if nobody read Einstein’s papers because he was just some lowly patent clerk? What if Continental Congress decided Jefferson was too much of a weirdo to be involved with the Declaration of Independence?
Extraordinary people are usually extraordinary in many ways, making them difficult to understand. People often fear what they don’t understand. They prefer the monotony of normalcy, arranging themselves in cliques to create social pressure to conform to group norms. Anyone who refuses to obey the norms is ostracized. The great figures mentioned above managed to break through the social pressures and barriers set up by normal society. Just imagine how many extraordinary people did not.
Turing’s work became the foundation of computer science, a field of study that yielded the most powerful inventions of the 20th century, possibly of all time. The Turing Machine is what we call the computer today. There is no way to overstate the impact Turing’s work has had on the world. Thanks to the bigotry and intolerance of 1950s Great Britain, humanity lost one of the true geniuses of our time. Who knows where computer science would be if Turing lived into his 60s or 70s.
Then there is the Turing Test, which inspired the Voight-Kampff machine in Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s classic novel, the story revolves around human-like androids capable of fooling the most advanced tests. The issue arises whether a person can determine if the person they are speaking to is a human or an android, putting into question what it is to be human. Turing introduced the idea of the test in a 1950 paper that asked the question “can machines think?” Since the word think was not clearly defined, Turing instead presents the question as “are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?”
The imitation game began as a three-way test to determine which player was a man and which was a woman. The later version switched the challenge to which player is a computer and which is human. Turing’s work was probably the first to take on artificial intelligence, a popular subject of science fiction. His pivotal works were published the same year as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories.
The movie is extremely well done, deserving of its numerous award nominations. Turing’s work is largely responsible for the information age. The bullying and humiliation suffered by Turing is particularly relevant given the prevalence of bullying and violence among the youth. Gay rights is also a prominent issue today, as well as gender equality. For all these reasons, The Imitation Game is a very relevant and powerful movie and I highly recommend it.