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Queerly Canadian #18: Apologizing to Alan Turing, forgotten gay icon

cate simpson

Alan Mathison Turing, computing pioneer and forgotten gay icon.

Alan Mathison Turing, computing pioneer and forgotten gay icon.

The other day I stumbled across a petition asking that the British government apologize to Alan Turing for “the tragic consequences of prejudice that ended [his] life and career,” and formally acknowledge the significance of his work.

Here’s some background. Alan Turing is most readily associated with the Turing Test, which sought to demonstrate whether a machine could think. The test, basically, involves a text-based conversation a human conducts with another human and with a Turing Machine. If he can’t tell whether he’s conversing with a human or machine, the machine passes the test.

The 1950s paper in which Turing laid out the test, and the conception of intelligence that it embodied, became one of the most influential in philosophical literature. It is still essential to most philosophical discussion of artificial intelligence and the essence of human consciousness.

Even more significantly, Turing was a codebreaker during the Second World War, ultimately devising a machine that could decipher the Germans’ Enigma Code. The Enigma Machine was so useful that some historians claim the information it intercepted hastened the end of the war by as much as two years.

Turing was also gay, a crime for which he was criminally prosecuted and chemically castrated. The conviction ended his career, and at the age of 41 he committed suicide.

Turing’s treatment at the hands of his own government is a detail absent from many histories of his work, and certainly absent from Enigma, the 2001 movie about the development of the codebreaking machine that substitutes Turing with a heterosexual character called Tom Jericho.

It’s particularly gratifying to see the tech community, which launched the campaign and petition, take on the cause of homophobia. And I think, even so many years after the fact, that the apology they are demanding on Turing’s behalf is warranted. Especially when you consider what it might have meant for the Second World War, and for students of the philosophy of mind, if Turing’s conviction had happened earlier in his career, before he could do the work for which he became known.

Of course, Turing was far from the only man to be convicted of “gross indecency” under the act that criminalized homosexuality before it was repealed in 1956 (’76 in Scotland)—Oscar Wilde being the most famous example. With this in mind, I wonder if this petition should go further.

Perhaps we should be asking that an apology be extended to all those who fell afoul of anti-homosexuality laws and had their careers cut short on the cusp of greatness—those whose contributions we will never know.

The petition is available to British residents and expats here: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/turing/

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