The fall of Eve
It is an error with a remarkable origin. Alan Turing exposed it shortly before committing suicide. Turing's suicide is a sensitive subject in computer circles. There is a certain aversion to talk about it because we do not want our founding father to appear as a media celebrity and his … (read more)
It is an error with a remarkable origin. Alan Turing exposed it shortly before committing suicide. Turing's suicide is a sensitive subject in computer circles. There is a certain aversion to talk about it because we do not want our founding father to appear as a media celebrity and his memory to be trivialized by the sensational aspects of his death. The legacy of Turing, the mathematician, goes beyond any possible sensationalism. His contributions were highly elegant and foundational. He bequeathed us great discoveries, including much of the mathematical foundation of digital computing. The highest award in computer science, our Nobel Prize, bears his name.
However, Turing, as a cultural figure, also deserves recognition. The first thing to note is that he was one of the great heroes of World War II. He was the first cracker, a person who uses computers to circumvent enemy security measures. Using one of the first computers, he cracked a secret Nazi code, called Enigma, which Nazi mathematicians considered unbreakable. The Nazis decoded the Enigma code in the field using a mechanical device about the size of a cigar box.
Turing reworked it as a bit pattern that could be analyzed on a computer and so cracked it. Who knows what world we would be living in today if Turing had not succeeded? The second fact to know about Turing is that he was a homosexual at a time when being gay was illegal. The British authorities, believing they were acting in the most compassionate way, forced him to undergo a dubious medical treatment that was supposed to correct his homosexuality. The treatment, oddly enough, consisted of injecting him with huge doses of female hormones. To understand how anyone could have come up with such a plan, one has to remember that before computers came along, the steam engine was the favorite metaphor for understanding human nature.
All that sexual pressure was increasing, which made the engine malfunction, so the opposite, feminine essence should compensate and reduce the pressure. This story should serve as a cautionary tale. The common use of computers as we understand them today, as a source of models and metaphors for ourselves, is surely as reliable as the use of the steam engine back then.
When Turing grew breasts and developed other feminine characteristics, he fell into a deep depression. He committed suicide in his laboratory by eating an apple that he doused with cyanide. Shortly before his death, he presented to the world a spiritual idea that should be valued apart from his technical achievements. It is the famous Turing test. The emergence of a truly new spiritual idea is a rare occurrence, and the fact that Turing came up with one is another example of his genius. Turing unveiled his new proposal in the form of a thought experiment, based on a popular Victorian parlor game. A man and a woman hide, and a judge must determine who is who based solely on the texts of notes passed from one to the other.
Turing replaced the woman with a computer - can the judge tell who the man is? If not, is the computer conscious, is it intelligent, does it deserve equal rights? It is impossible for us to know what role the torture he suffered at the time played in his formulation of the test. What is undeniable is that one of the key figures in the defeat of fascism was destroyed by our own side, after the war, because he was gay. No wonder he reflected on the rights of different creatures.
When Turing died, software was still at such an early stage that no one could have known what a mess it would turn out to be when it evolved. Turing imagined a pristine, crystalline form of existence in the digital realm, and I believe that imagining a form of life apart from the torments of the body and the politics of sexuality may have been a comfort to him. It is striking that it was the woman who was replaced by the computer, and that in Turing's suicide echoes the fall of Eve.
-Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget).
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