Saturday, June 23, 2012

Alan Turing: Church, State, and the Tragedy of Gender-Defiant Genius

Today is the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who died far too young just shy of his 42nd birthday in 1954. Blogs and magazines across the internets are singing Turing's praises today - and rightfully so. It is not hyperbole to suggest that Turing reshaped the world we live it with his innovations in computational intelligence.

Here is a little bit from Daniel Dennett (at The Atlantic Monthly) on Turing's impact:
The Pre-Turing world was one in which computers were people, who had to understand mathematics in order to do their jobs. Turing realized that this was just not necessary: you could take the tasks they performed and squeeze out the last tiny smidgens of understanding, leaving nothing but brute, mechanical actions. In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is. 
What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension. This inverted the deeply plausible assumption that comprehension is in fact the source of all advanced competence. Why, after all, do we insist on sending our children to school, and why do we frown on the old-fashioned methods of rote learning? We expect our children's growing competence to flow from their growing comprehension. The motto of modern education might be: "Comprehend in order to be competent." For us members of H. sapiens, this is almost always the right way to look at, and strive for, competence. I suspect that this much-loved principle of education is one of the primary motivators of skepticism about both evolution and its cousin in Turing's world, artificial intelligence. The very idea that mindless mechanicity can generate human-level -- or divine level! -- competence strikes many as philistine, repugnant, an insult to our minds, and the mind of God.

A celebration of the life and work of the pioneering computer scientist
See full coverage

Consider how Turing went about his proof. He took human computers as his model. There they sat at their desks, doing one simple and highly reliable step after another, checking their work, writing down the intermediate results instead of relying on their memories, consulting their recipes as often as they needed, turning what at first might appear a daunting task into a routine they could almost do in their sleep. Turing systematically broke down the simple steps into even simpler steps, removing all vestiges of discernment or comprehension. Did a human computer have difficulty telling the number 99999999999 from the number 9999999999? Then break down the perceptual problem of recognizing the number into simpler problems, distributing easier, stupider acts of discrimination over multiple steps. He thus prepared an inventory of basic building blocks from which to construct the universal algorithm that could execute any other algorithm. He showed how that algorithm would enable a (human) computer to compute any function, and noted that:
The behavior of the computer at any moment is determined by the symbols which he is observing and his "state of mind" at that moment. We may suppose that there is a bound B to the number of symbols or squares which the computer can observe at one moment. If he wishes to observe more, he must use successive observations. ... The operation actually performed is determined ... by the state of mind of the computer and the observed symbols. In particular, they determine the state of mind of the computer after the operation is carried out.
He then noted, calmly:
We may now construct a machine to do the work of this computer.
Right there we see the reduction of all possible computation to a mindless process. We can start with the simple building blocks Turing had isolated, and construct layer upon layer of more sophisticated computation, restoring, gradually, the intelligence Turing had so deftly laundered out of the practices of human computers. 
For all his brilliance, he was a man living in the wrong era, and the system punished him for how nature had created him - a gay man at a time when it was illegal to be gay.

Of all the tributes to Turing the mathematical and computational genius, the column from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, posted yesterday, is the most moving to me.

She examines the life of the man, the human being struggling to find his place in a world that could not accept him as nature had made him. A man who is described as seeming often out of place, uncomfortable in his clothes, or living in the wrong century (belonging either three centuries back or two forward).

Here is some of Popova's article, much of it quoted from David Leavitt's biography of Turing, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer:
In 1952, Turing was criminally prosecuted by the U.K. government for his homosexuality, illegal at the time, and forced to take female hormones to “cure” his unlawful “disorder” — a process known as chemical castration — as an alternative to a prison sentence. Less than two years later, shortly before his forty-second birthday, Turing committed suicide. In The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (public library), David Leavitt offers a poignant lens on how Turing’s homosexuality factored into his intellectual and creative triumphs and tribulations:
In a letter written to his friend Norman Routeledge near the end of his life, Turing linked his arrest with his accomplishments in an extraordinary syllogism:
Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines cannot think
His fear seems to have been that his homosexuality would be used not just against him but against his ideas. Nor was his notion of the rather antiquated biblical locution ‘to lie with’ accidental: Turing was fully aware of the degree to which both his homosexuality and his belief in computer intelligence posed a threat to organized religion. After all, his insistence on questioning humankind’s exclusive claim to the faculty of thought had brought on him a barrage of criticism in the 1940s, perhaps because his call to ‘fair play’ to machines encoded a subtle critique of social norms that denied to another population — that of homosexual men and women — the right to a legitimate existence. For Turing — remarkably, given the era in which he came of age — seems to have taken it as a given that there was nothing wrong with being homosexual; more remarkably, this conviction came to inform even some of his most arcane mathematical writings. To some extent his ability to make unexpected connections reflected the startlingly original — and at the same time startlingly literal — nature of his imagination.
To further illustrate this odd duality of the disenfranchised and the prodigious that defined Turing’s existence, Leavitt cites the writings of novelist Lyn Irvine, whose husband was the mathematician Max Newman, and her brief recollection of Turing published in the late 1950s — an insightful portrait of him as a man unable to fit into the standard social molds, torn between the past and the future:
Alan certainly had less of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in him than most of his contemporaries. One must go back three centuries (or on [forward] two perhaps) to place him…
This tension of belonging, elusively just beyond reach, comes up a few paragraphs later, where Irvine writes:
He never looked right in his clothes, neither in his Burberry, well-worn, dirty, and a size too small, nor when he took pains and wore a clean white shirt or his best tweed suit. An Alchemist’s robe, or chain mail would have suited him, the first one fitting in with his abstracted manner, the second with that dark and powerful head, with its chin like a ship’s prow and its nose short and curved like the nose of an enquiring animal. The chain mail would have gone with his eyes too, blue to the brightness and richness of stained glass.
Leavitt laments:
The alchemist took logical principles, wire, and electronic circuits, and made a machine. The knight defended the right of that machine to a future.
If only he had been able to save himself.
The most tragic irony — or, perhaps, greatest frontier for redemption — is that today, we’re still debating the very civil liberty and basic human right the violation of which precipitated Turing’s suicide, but we’re waging our wars, fueling and following that debate, largely via the machine he invented. More than half a century later, how many Turings are we forcing to be smaller than they are, and how many are we losing completely?
This is a sad and tragic tribute to a man who was punished for his innate and natural desires for physical affection. Popova's point at the end here is spot on - we are still fighting over the rights of LGBT folks to live as full and free citizens in this country.

Never again should someone choose death as a more pleasant option than life simply because s/he is denied the freedom to live as s/he was born to live, and to love as s/he was born to love. 

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