Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Alan Turing deserves an apology from the British Government

When I started writing The Geek Atlas there was one name that was getting in the book no matter what: Alan Turing.

Alan Turing matters on many levels because he was, in the words of the memorial in Manchester:

Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice

Turing's work has affected us all. He's best know for his involvement in Second World War code breaking (especially for helping to break Engima) and if all he had done was that we would be grateful.

But Turing was also a critical pioneer of computer science. He defined a theoretical model of computers (at a time when 'computer' meant a person, often a woman, who computed numbers) that holds true today. He suggested how we might determine whether a computer was sentient (with the Turing Test).

Turing's death should remind us how prejudice ruins and degrades.

Alan Turing was gay. And he was prosecuted for 'indecent acts' and eventually took his own life aged 41. This man, younger than me, killed himself because at the time homosexuality was illegal and having been prosecuted he was chemically castrated in an attempt to 'cure' him. He had been stripped of his security clearance.

For years, his legacy was largely ignored outside the computer community. To quote Wikipedia:

In 1994 a stretch of the A6010 road (the Manchester city intermediate ring road) was named Alan Turing Way. A bridge carrying this road was widened, and carries the name 'Alan Turing Bridge'.

A frikkin' Ring Road!

It wasn't until 2001 that a statue was erected.

Today is Alan Turing's 97th birthday. Or at least it could have been if it were not for his prosecution and untimely death.

Isn't it time the British Government apologized for the way he was treated? We shouldn't let this anniversary of his death go by without recognizing the great works this man did and the ignominious way in which he was treated.


ilivewithian said...

Whilst I agree with you that he was badly treated, why should they apologise?

A person / government cannot be judged by our morals or laws. They must be judged by the morals and laws of the day. Otherwise every time we change a law and move on we end up going back to every single institution, individual, people group and apologise, pay compensation and slow down progress as a result. We will be forced to stop changing, because the cost of change becomes to great.

Yes he was treated horribly and yes his life deserves recognition, but no the government should not apologise.

Vince said...

This is to say Germans should not apologize for the cruel acts of the Third Reich because they just obeyed the morals and laws of those days.

It's not so much about who was right and who was wrong. It's not even about the past. Apologizing is about reconciliation and setting an example that such injustice is not accepted, neither in our time, nor in the future.

Rachel said...

Yes. And thanks for posting this.

The optimist in me is hoping they're waiting for the centennial--still too little, too late.

Dante said...

I also beleive a few major computer companies were asked to put up a statue in his honor. They said no.

As an AI Researcher, to whom I owe my very work to Alan Turing, I will be taking the geek version of a pilgrimage.