ALAN TURING, British mathematician and computer scientist died (b. 1912) from cyanide poisoning, eighteen months after being given libido-reducing hormone treatment for a year as a punishment for homosexuality. Turing is generally considered to be the Father of Modern Computer Science. He provided an influential formalization of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine.
In ‘the Turing Test” Turing proposed that a human evaluator would judge natural language conversations between a human and a machine designed to generate human-like responses. The evaluator would be aware that one of the two partners in conversation is a machine, and all participants would be separated from one another. The conversation would be limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen so the result would not depend on the machine’s ability to render words as speech. If the evaluator cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. The test does not check the ability to give correct answers to questions, only how closely answers resemble those a human would give.
With the Turing test, he made a significant and characteristically provocative contribution to the debate regarding artificial intelligence: whether it will ever be possible to say that a machine is conscious and can think. He later worked at the National Physical Laboratory, creating one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, although it was never actually built.
In 1948 he moved to the University of Manchester to work on the Manchester Mark I, then emerging as one of the world’s earliest true computers. During WWII Turing worked at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code breaking center, and was for a time head of Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis.
He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including the method of the bombe, an electro-mechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Turing was Gay in a period when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain and homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness and subject to criminal sanctions.
In 1952, Arnold Murray, a 19-year-old recent acquaintance of Turing’s, helped an accomplice to break into Turing’s house, and Turing went to the police to report the crime. As a result of the police investigation, Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray, and a crime having been identified and settled, they were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Turing was unrepentant and was convicted of the same crime Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than fifty years before. He was given the choice between imprisonment and probation, conditional on his undergoing hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido.
To avoid going to jail, he accepted the estrogen hormone injections, which lasted for a year, with side effects including gynecomastia (breast enlargement). His lean runner’s body took on fat. His conviction led to a removal of his security clearance and prevented him from continuing consultancy for GCHQ on cryptographic matters. At this time, there was acute public anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents. In America, Robert Oppenheimer had just been deemed a security risk.
On June 8, 1954, his housekeeper found him dead; the previous day, he had died of cyanide poisoning, apparently from a cyanide-laced apple he left half-eaten beside his bed. The apple itself was never tested for contamination with cyanide, and cyanide poisoning as a cause of death was established by a post-mortem.
Most believe that his death was intentional, and the death was ruled a suicide. His mother, however, strenuously argued that the ingestion was accidental due to his careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have killed himself in this ambiguous way quite deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability. Others suggest that Turing was reenacting a scene from “Snow White”, reportedly his favorite fairy tale. Because Turing’s sexuality would have been perceived as a security risk, the possibility of assassination has also been suggested. His remains were cremated at Woking crematorium on June 12, 1954.
There is an urban legend that the Apple Computer “bite out of an apple” logo is a tribute to Turing. It is exactly that: an urban legend. But that’s not to say that the idea of paying homage to Turing is something the creators of Apple were against. When actor Stephen Fry once asked his good friend Steve Jobs if the famous logo was based on Turing, Jobs replied, “God, we wish it were.” Hodges biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma is the basis of the film The Imitation Game (a reference to “the Turing Test” which is also referenced in the film Ex Machina.