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What We Lost To Homophobia: Setting the Record Straight

Posted by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 11:15 PM
  • 31 Replies

Setting The Record Straight For Alan Turing

Alan M Turing and colleagues work on the Ferranti Mark I Computer in the United Kingdom in 1951.

Alan M Turing and colleagues work on the Ferranti Mark I Computer in the United Kingdom in 1951.

Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images

Imagine, for a moment, that Albert Einstein's greatest contributions were kept secret at the highest levels of government. Imagine, for a moment, that while still relatively young, Einstein was prosecuted, shamed and driven to suicide for the inclinations of his affections. Imagine, for a moment, that in the wake of the secrecy, the shame and the suicide, you never knew Albert Einstein's name.

Seems crazy, doesn't it? In many ways, however, that narrative is the story of Alan Turing. Thankfully, it's a story that is finally getting aired in popular culture through the new film The Imitation Game.

Until relatively recently, most folks wouldn't come across Turing's name unless they had a certain kind of computational orientation. "Turing" doesn't ring the same bells as Einstein, Newton, Darwin or even Heisenberg, Watson and Crick. But, without doubt, Alan Turing should be on their list of science giants.

It's not just that Turing's work was worthy of a Noble Prize. He went far beyond that. Turing possessed an epoch-making genius of the highest order — and his impact on human civilization is in line with the heights that kind of genius yields. That's why Turing's omission from everyone's list of super-scientists is so galling. But worse, still, are the circumstances of that omission's occurrence, driven by a confluence of two remarkable factors — an accident of history and pure narrow-minded fear.

The accident was World War II. To be more explicit, it was the fact that Turing played a decisive role in winning that war through his hyper-mega-top-secret work in cryptography. Turing's work deciphering German codes was kept utterly invisible to the rest of the world after the conflict ended. Thus, the man who helped shave two years off one of the bloodiest wars in history never became a household word (like "Oppenheimer" or "Patton" or "Eisenhower").

But the real tragedy of Turing rests with the "narrow-minded fear" part of the story. Alan Turing was gay at a time when this was a punishable crime in England. Arrested and shamed for his relationship with another man, Turing was forced into "chemical castration" in 1953. A year later, at the age of 41, Turing committed suicide

We lost a lot in losing Alan Turing to homophobia. But to be clear, let's take a few moments to understand what he managed to accomplish when he wasn't saving western civilization from fascism.

In 1935, at the ripe age of 22, Turing devised the abstract mathematical background to define a computing machine. Now called a "Turing Machine," it would sequentially respond to input and generate output in a step-by-step (i.e., algorithmic) fashion. Turing Machines are the essence of every device with a chip in it you have ever encountered. That's why Turing stands, essentially, at the head of the line when it comes to the creation of the digital age. He is the father of all computers.

Turing's interest in "thinking machines" continued after his early studies. Part of the triumph of his work during World War II was developing electromechanical devices to crack the supposedly un-crackable German Enigma coding machines. After the war he led Britain's effort to create a true "electronic" computer, and in his later theoretical work he took the first steps toward what is now called neural-network computing.

If initiating the digital revolution were all there was to Alan Turing, that would be enough to warrant his name being universally recognizable. But Turning's genius went deeper still. Turing didn't just define computers, he defined computing in its deepest, most cosmic sense.

Turing's work developing the idea of a Turing Machine was part of larger project: defining the very limits of mathematics. It's a story that begins with the Greeks millennia ago but takes its sharp focus in 1900 with the legendary German mathematican David Hilbert. Hilbert had set the agenda for his entire field by tasking mathematicians to express all mathematics in the form of a consistent, complete and decidable "formal" system.

As philosopher Jack Copeland explains it, Hilbert's goal was transcendent:

"A consistent system is one that contains no contradictions; 'complete' means that every true mathematical statement is provable in the system; and 'decidable' means that there is an effective method for telling, of each mathematical statement, whether or not the statement is provable in the system. Hilbert's point was that if we came to possess such a formal system, then ignorance would be banished from mathematics forever."

Since mathematics is the basis of all science, what we would have — at root, at least — was a model for perfect knowledge.

But in 1931, Kurt Gödel famously proved that no formal mathematical system could be consistent and complete. Then, in 1936, it was Turing who used his abstract Turing Machines to show that decidability was impossible, too. Thus Turing (along with Alonzo Church) played a decisive role in showing that the most ancient human dream of perfect, absolute and axiomatic knowledge was exactly that — just a dream. Only a mind of the highest and most subtle understanding could have achieved such insight.

In the modern era, Turing's essential understanding of computation and knowledge has found new applications in cosmology, of all places. Many physicists have come to see the universe as a whole as a kind of giant information processing system — and have used Turing Machine concepts in the work. Thus, even fundamental physics has embraced the fundamental importance of Turing's insights.

But we lost Alan Turing at age 41 because too many people were uncomfortable with whom he was inclined to love. Think about what might have happened if he had been around to witness the dawn of the personal computer or the Internet? How different might both those revolutions have been with his input?

There is a lot of discussion these days about the need for greater inclusion in sciences. Whether it's homophobia or sexism or racism or even the ability for poor kids to get access to science education, it's become clear that biases and barriers still exist. Sometimes they are blatant and sometimes they are subtle. What Alan Turing's story shows us is just how much we stand to lose when we fail to understand that genius, or just a good scientist, can appear anywhere and in any form.


Nerds Without Pants

by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 11:15 PM
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Clairwil
by Platinum Member on Jan. 7, 2015 at 3:29 AM
1 mom liked this


Quoting NWP:

"Turing" doesn't ring the same bells as Einstein, Newton, Darwin or even Heisenberg, Watson and Crick. But, without doubt, Alan Turing should be on their list of science giants.

Actually I'd rate him about the same as John von Neumann.    Who wasn't gay.

How many here have heard of him?

Clairwil
by Platinum Member on Jan. 7, 2015 at 3:31 AM

Researchers in the United Kingdom had been exploring "machine intelligence" for up to ten years prior to the founding of the field of artificial intelligence (AI) research in 1956.[12] It was a common topic among the members of the Ratio Club, who were an informal group of British cybernetics and electronics researchers that included Alan Turing, after whom the test is named.[13]

Turing, in particular, had been tackling the notion of machine intelligence since at least 1941[14] and one of the earliest-known mentions of "computer intelligence" was made by him in 1947.[15] In Turing's report, "Intelligent Machinery",[16] he investigated "the question of whether or not it is possible for machinery to show intelligent behaviour"[17] and, as part of that investigation, proposed what may be considered the forerunner to his later tests:

It is not difficult to devise a paper machine which will play a not very bad game of chess.[18] Now get three men as subjects for the experiment. A, B and C. A and C are to be rather poor chess players, B is the operator who works the paper machine. ... Two rooms are used with some arrangement for communicating moves, and a game is played between C and either A or the paper machine. C may find it quite difficult to tell which he is playing.[19]

"Computing Machinery and Intelligence" (1950) was the first published paper by Turing to focus exclusively on machine intelligence. Turing begins the 1950 paper with the claim, "I propose to consider the question 'Can machines think?'"[3] As he highlights, the traditional approach to such a question is to start with definitions, defining both the terms "machine" and "intelligence". Turing chooses not to do so; instead he replaces the question with a new one, "which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words."[3] In essence he proposes to change the question from "Can machines think?" to "Can machines do what we (as thinking entities) can do?"[20] The advantage of the new question, Turing argues, is that it draws "a fairly sharp line between the physical and intellectual capacities of a man."[21]

To demonstrate this approach Turing proposes a test inspired by a party game, known as the "Imitation Game," in which a man and a woman go into separate rooms and guests try to tell them apart by writing a series of questions and reading the typewritten answers sent back. In this game both the man and the woman aim to convince the guests that they are the other. (Huma Shah argues that this two-human version of the game was presented by Turing only to introduce the reader to the machine-human question-answer test.[22]) Turing described his new version of the game as follows:

We now ask the question, "What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?" Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, "Can machines think?"[21]

Later in the paper Turing suggests an "equivalent" alternative formulation involving a judge conversing only with a computer and a man.[23] While neither of these formulations precisely matches the version of the Turing Test that is more generally known today, he proposed a third in 1952. In this version, which Turing discussed in a BBC radio broadcast, a jury asks questions of a computer and the role of the computer is to make a significant proportion of the jury believe that it is really a man.[24]

Turing's paper considered nine putative objections, which include all the major arguments against artificial intelligencethat have been raised in the years since the paper was published (see "Computing Machinery and Intelligence").[5]

TranquilMind
by Bronze Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 9:40 AM
2 moms liked this
We lost Turing because he killed himself, not because "people were uncomfortable."

???
mikiemom
by Gold Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 9:55 AM

God when I clicked I said this is going to be  about Alan Turing, I just felt it.

The loss of this great mind was a tragedy.

No one has ever and never will force a person to be gay.

mikiemom
by Gold Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 9:57 AM

 Me - his is a legend in the computer science community.

Quoting Clairwil:

 

Quoting NWP:

"Turing" doesn't ring the same bells as Einstein, Newton, Darwin or even Heisenberg, Watson and Crick. But, without doubt, Alan Turing should be on their list of science giants.

Actually I'd rate him about the same as John von Neumann.    Who wasn't gay.

How many here have heard of him?

 

mikiemom
by Gold Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 10:00 AM

 It is so easy for folks to sit back smugly deny the harm their hate and discrimation causes.

Quoting TranquilMind: We lost Turing because he killed himself, not because "people were uncomfortable." ???

 

TranquilMind
by Bronze Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 10:11 AM
1 mom liked this
It's so easy to blame other people for your own issues.

Quoting mikiemom:

 It is so easy for folks to sit back smugly deny the harm their hate and discrimation causes.


Quoting TranquilMind: We lost Turing because he killed himself, not because "people were uncomfortable." ???

 

candlegal
by Silver Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 10:16 AM
1 mom liked this
Homosexuals are not the only ones that kill themselves. Many Mentally ill people kill themselves.

Quoting TranquilMind: It's so easy to blame other people for your own issues.

Quoting mikiemom:

 It is so easy for folks to sit back smugly deny the harm their hate and discrimation causes.


Quoting TranquilMind: We lost Turing because he killed himself, not because "people were uncomfortable." ???

 

mikiemom
by Gold Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 10:23 AM
2 moms liked this

I don't think anything will change the hearts of those who hate in the name of their religion.

TranquilMind
by Bronze Member on Jan. 8, 2015 at 10:36 AM
1 mom liked this
Right. Who do they blame then?

Quoting candlegal: Homosexuals are not the only ones that kill themselves. Many Mentally ill people kill themselves.

Quoting TranquilMind: It's so easy to blame other people for your own issues.

Quoting mikiemom:

 It is so easy for folks to sit back smugly deny the harm their hate and discrimation causes.


Quoting TranquilMind: We lost Turing because he killed himself, not because "people were uncomfortable." ???

 

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