When it comes to the history of computing, cryptography and and mathematics, few people have earned more renown and respect than Alan Turing. In addition to helping the Allied forces of World War II break the Enigma Code, a feat which was the difference between victory and defeat in Europe, he also played an important role in the development of computers with his “Turing Machine” and designed the Turning Test – a basic intelligence requirement for future AIs.
Despite these accomplishments, Alan Turing became the target of government persecution when it was revealed in 1952 that he was gay. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom, and Alan Turing was charged with “gross indecency” and given the choice between prison and chemical castration. He chose the latter, and after two years of enduring the effects of the drug, he ate an apple laced with cyanide and died.
Officially ruled as a suicide, though some suggested that foul play may have been involved, Turing died at the tender age of 41. Despite his lifelong accomplishments and the fact that he helped to save Britain from a Nazi invasion, he was destroyed by his own government for the simple crime of being gay.
But in a recent landmark decision, the British government made a historic ruling by indicating that they would support a backbench bill that would clear his name posthumously of all charges. This ruling is not the first time that the subject of Turing’s sentencing has been visited by the British Parliament. Though for years they have been resistant to offering an official pardon, Prime Minister Gordon Brown did offer an apology for the “appalling” treatent Turing received.
However, it was not until now that it sought to wipe the slate clean and begin to redress the issue, starting with the ruling that ruined the man’s life. The government ruling came on Friday, and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a government whip, told peers that the government would table the third reading of the Alan Turin bill at the end of October if no amendments are made.
Every year since 1966, the Turing Award – the computing worlds highest honor and equivalent of the Nobel Prize- has been given by the Association for Computing Machinery for technical or theoretical contributions to the computing community. In addition, on 23 June 1998 – what would have been Turing’s 86th birthday – an English Heritage blue plague was unveiled at his birthplace in and childhood home in Warrington Crescent, London.
In addition, in 1994, a stretch of the A6010 road – the Manchester city intermediate ring road – was named “Alan Turing Way”, and a bridge connected to the road was named “Alan Turing Bridge”. A statue of Turing was also unveiled in Manchester in 2001 in Sackville Park, between the University of Manchester building on Whitworth Street and the Canal Street gay village.
This memorial statue depicts the “father of Computer Science” sitting on a bench at a central position in the park holding an apple. The cast bronze bench carries in relief the text ‘Alan Mathison Turing 1912–1954’, and the motto ‘Founder of Computer Science’ as it would appear if encoded by an Enigma machine: ‘IEKYF ROMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ’.
But perhaps the greatest and most creative tribute to Turning comes in the form of the statue of him that adorns Bletchley Park, the site of the UK’s main decryption department during World War II. The 1.5-ton, life-size statue of Turing was unveiled on June 19th, 2007. Built from approximately half a million pieces of Welsh slate, it was sculpted by Stephen Kettle and commissioned by the late American billionaire Sidney Frank.
Last year, Turing was even commemorated with a Google doodle last year in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday. In a fitting tribute to Turing’s code-breaking work, this doodle designed to spell out the name Google in binary. Unlike previous tributes produced by Google, this one was remarkably complicated. Those who attempted to figure it out apparently had to consult the online source Mashable just to realize what the purpose of it was.
For many, this news is seen as a development that has been too long in coming. Much like Canada’s own admission to wrongdoing in the case of Residential Schools, or the Church’s persecution of Galileo, it seems that some institutions are very slow to acknowledge that mistakes were made and injustices committed. No doubt, anyone in a position of power and authority is afraid to admit to wrongdoing for fear that it will open the floodgates.
But as with all things having to do with history and criminal acts, people cannot be expected to move forward until accounts are settled. And for those who would say “get over it already!”, or similar statements which would place responsibility for moving forward on the victims, I would say “just admit you were wrong already!”
Rest in peace, Alan Turing, and may continued homophobes who refuse to admit they’re wrong find the wisdom and self-respect to learn and grow from their mistakes. Orson Scott Card, I’m looking in your direction!