Monday, November 21, 2011

Beware the Alan Turing fetish

Tonight Channel 4 screens a wonderful new docudrama called Britain's Greatest Codebreaker about the life, work and death of Alan Turing. I was privileged to be invited to see it at a private screening at the BAFTA and was particularly moved and astonished by the scenes between Turing and psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum.

Leading up to tonight's screening a number of press articles have appeared about Turing, including a long one entitled Outcast who gave us the modern world in The Sunday Times. The article reflects a worrying trend in talking about Turing: a sort of Turing fetish.

Of course, I'm partly responsible for all this. Having campaigned for the public apology for the treatment of Turing which resulted in the 2009 government apology. What I wanted from that campaign was national (and, perhaps, international recognition) for Turing. That part worked, but we need to be mindful not to go too far.

The Sunday Times article says:
Had he lived, he might have been able to jump-start a new industrial revolution 20 years early — and in his homeland rather than 5,000 miles away in Silicon Valley.
[...]
It is fascinating to ponder what might have happened had he lived. Turing spent a couple of years in America in the late 1930s and showed no sign of wanting to stay. It is unlikely that he would have succumbed to the brain drain.
[...]
This brilliant, charming, odd, driven workaholic could have turned the old industrial heartlands of Lancashire into a British Silicon Valley and perhaps America’s brightest and best would have flooded east across the Atlantic.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it overlooks the realities of the size of the computer market in the UK and US, the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs, the incredible power of the military-industrial complex and it denigrates those who did work in early computing in the UK. It also overlooks the fact that post-World War II Britain was in serious dire straits: heavily indebted to the US and Canada (a debt Britain didn't finish repaying until 2006) and with its economy tattered.

Sure, Turing was damned important (I wouldn't have campaigned for recognition if I didn't think so), and his contributions to computer science, AI, code-breaking and morphogenesis were massive. But to think his death is somehow why Silicon Valley isn't in Britain is a mistake.

I talked this over with a scientific historian the other day and he made the point that the US computing market (both private and military) was massive at the time Turing was alive. By 1950 IBM had over 30,000 employees and greater than $250m in revenue. The combination of a massive home market and enormous Cold War spending (for example, on SAGE) meant that the US was running fast in the computing game.

At the same time an Alan Turing fetish means we might overlook the other great people who worked in early computing: Tommy Flowers was the eminently practical man who built Colossus; Maurice Wilkes was the man behind EDSAC. And what of British computing projects such as the Pilot ACE, LEO, and Manchester Baby and Manchester Mark I?

The LEO was up and running while Turing was still alive. And it was a business computer running in the UK in 1951.

It's a simple, and tempting, story to say that had Alan Turing lived that Britain would have been years and years ahead (and perhaps so far ahead to have beaten the US), but I think it's a fantasy. The Sunday Times article even goes so far as to suggest that Turing might have emerged as the leader of a British Google or Apple. The article posits that Turing would not have moved to the US.

This Alan Turing fetish extends outside computing. His work on Enigma overshadows the amazing work on cracking the Lorenz cipher which led to the Colossus machine. The cracker of that cipher, Bill Tutte, did leave the UK (in 1962) for Canada.

Let's put a halt to the fantasy and focus on the reality: Turing was a brilliant man and we should celebrate that and the work that he did do. The work he did was amazing enough without burdening his legacy with typical British bemoaning of our lack of megainfluence in the world (in this case, in the world of computing).

So, watch tonight's program: it's good television.

PS A reader points out that The Sunday Times overlook the importance of the British company ARM. Very true, few people outside computing have heard of the company, but they probably have an ARM processor in their pocket.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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