The legacy of Alan Turing

British chancellor George Osborne announced yesterday that the government of the United Kingdom will found an Alan Turing Institute dedicated to research on big data. Universities and other organizations can bid for the £42 million, 5-year grant to establish the Institute. A public gesture which is nonetheless small compensation for the government’s persecution of a man who played a central role in the Allied victory in World War II.

Bletchley Park

Alan Turing was a mathematician and pioneer of computer science whose talent for number theory and the algorythms of cryptography and cryptanalysis led to his involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany. After getting his Ph.D. from Princeton University, in 1938 Turing joined the Government Code & Cypher School; on the day that Great Britain declared war on Germany he reported to Bletchley Park, the war-time epicenter of Britain’s code-breaking efforts. Turing was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma cypher, which for instance had kept U-boats one step ahead of the Allies in the Atlantic. Because of his work at Bletchley Park he was among the few people afforded the highest security classification at the time, codename Ultra; it was thanks to Ultra, Winston Churchill later said, that the Allies won the war.

928 brilliant pages

Most of what I know about Alan Turing comes, oddly enough, from one of my favorite novels: Cryptonomicon (1999), by Neal Stephenson. A lengthy and brainy science thriller following two interconnected storylines, one set in the 1940s and the other in the 1990s, Cryptonomicon stars Alan Turing in a supporting role as the colleague and friend of one of the book’s central characters, mathematician and fellow codebreaker Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse. Cryptonomicon portrays Turing as an incredibly smart, kind and sensitive man. A genius at math. And gay.

The novel does not cover what happened to Turing after the war. Despite his privately acknowledged role in the defeat of the Nazis – he was inducted into the Order of the British Empire by King George VI – Turing’s sexual orientation was deemed inacceptable by the very state he had helped save. After acknowledging a homosexual relationship during a police investigation into a burglary at his home, in 1952 Turing was charged with “gross indecency” under the criminal law of the time. During the ensuing court proceedings he accepted a guilty plea on advice of his lawyers. The court sentence allowed him to choose between prison and probation, as long as he submitted himself to chemical castration through a hormonal treatment to reduce his libido. As a result of his conviction Turing was rescinded his security clearance and denied entry to the United States. With the Official Secrets Act legally preventing him from discussing his work during the war, his public image at the time became one of “indecency” and – as was suspected of many gays at the time – potential communist sympathies.

Alan Turing (1912 – 1954)

Two years later Alan Turing body’s was found lifeless in his bed. An autopsy concluded that the cause of death had been cyanide poisoning: he had committed suicide.

So much for the tragedy. Here comes the shame: it took the British government 55 years to make a formal apology, a gesture that Gordon Brown acceded to under pressure from an internet campaign. And it was not until December 2013 – after institutions in 20 countries had commemorated the centennary of Turing’s birth the previous year – that the Queen finally issued a royal pardon.

That is the historical and personal context in which the British government’s plan to establish an Alan Turing Institute has to be understood. I sincerely hope that the University of Manchester bids for this new center: Turing moved here in 1948 to become reader in the Mathematics Department and deputy director of the Computing Laboratory. The University likes to boast of his time here, and has named the building housing the School of Mathematics after him. Nevertheless, regardless of where it actually ends, it seems to me that the future institution should be devoted to not one but two central tasks, both equally inspired by Turing’s life: leading research on the analysis of big data, and promoting equality and non-discrimination within the scientific community and society at large.

In the meantime, if you happen to be in Manchester you can visit the Alan Turing Memorial on Sackville Park, appropriately located close to Manchester’s Gay Village. The statue portrays him holding the half-eaten apple that was found by his bed, which some have interpreted as a dying man’s homage to his favorite fairy tale, Walt Disney’s  Snow White. Rest in peace, Alan.

Alan Turing Memorial – Sackville Park, Manchester