sábado, mayo 10, 2014

On Alan Turing

Turing's suicide is a touchy subject in computer science circles. There's an aversion to talking about it much, because we don't want our founding father to seem like a tabloid celebrity, and we don't want his memory trivialized by the sensational aspects of his death.

The legacy of Turing the mathemathician rises above any possible sensationalism. His contributions were supremely elegant and foundational. He gifted us with wild leaps of invention, including much of the mathematical underpinnings of digital computation. The highest award in computer science, our Nobel Prize, is named in his honor.

Turing the cultural figure must be acknowledged, however. The first thing to understand is that he was one of the great heroes of World War II. He was the first "cracker," a person who uses computers to defeat an enemy's security measures. He applied one of the first computers to break a Nazi secret code, called Enigma, which Nazi mathematicians had believed was unbreakable. Enigma was decoded by the Nazis in the field using a mechanical device about the size of a cigar box. Turing reconceived it as a pattern of bits that could be analyzed in a computer, and cracked it wide open. Who knows what world we would be living in today if Turing had not succeeded?

The second thing to know about Turing is that he was gay at a time when it was illegal to be gay. British authorities, thinking they were doing the most compassionate thing, coerced him into a quack medical treatment that was supposed to correct his homosexuality. It consisted bizarrely, of massive infusions of female hormones.

In order to understand how someone could have come up with that plan, you have to remember that before computers came along, the steam engine was a preferred metaphor for understanding human nature. All that sexual pressure was building up and causing the machine to malfunction, so the opposite essence, the female kind, ought to balance it out and reduce the pressure. This story should serve as a cautionary tale. The common use of computers, as we understand them today, as sources for models and metaphors of ourselves is probably about as reliable as the use of the steam engine was back then.

Turing developed breasts and other female characteristics and became terribly depressed. He commited suicide by lacing an apple with cyanide in his lab and eating it. Shortly after his death, he presented the world with a spiritual idea, which must be evaluated separately from his technical achievements. This is the famous Turing test. It is extremely rare for a genuinely new spiritual idea to appear, and it is yet another example of Turing's genius that he came up with one.

Turing presented his new offering in the form of a thought experiment, based on a popular Victorian parlor game. A man and a woman hide, and a judge is asked to determine which is which by relying only on the texts of notes passed back and forth.

Turing replaced the woman with a computer. Can the judge tell which is the man? If not, is the computer conscious? Intelligent? Does it deserve equal rights?

It's impossible for us to know what role the torture Turing was enduring at the time played in his formulation of the test. But it is undeniable that one of the key figures in the defeat of fascism was destroyed, by our side, after the war, because he was gay. No wonder his imagination pondered the rights of strange creatures.

- From You are not a gadget. Jaron Lanier. 

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