Alan Turing’s service to his country has been recognised steadily in recent years: the 2013 posthumous royal pardon for the 1952 conviction for homosexuality that destroyed his life; the establishment of the Alan Turing Institute for data science research; and now the design of a £50 banknote with his image on it.
There is, however, something discomfiting about the appropriation of Turing’s name by politicians whose forebears presided over a state that chemically castrated him for an affair with another man.
Today, we live in a marginally more civilised country in terms of how society treats LGBTQ+ people, but homophobia is still a menacing presence. MI6, a prestigious part of the secret world to which Turing belonged, has recently apologised for, before 1991, sacking officers for being gay, even though male homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967.
The treatment of Turing was a moral crime. As is well known, Turing’s work was part of the code breaking effort at Bletchley Park which played a significant role in the Allied victory over Germany and its allies. It may have shortened the war by two to four years. Did the British state not owe him a debt of gratitude in 1952? The Prime Minister at that time, Winston Churchill, knew full well about Bletchley Park.
The truth about Ultra – the wartime signals intelligence analysed at the Park – emerged slowly, starting to become public in 1974. But the shade of Alan Turing figured in the pages of Computer Weekly in 1966, in the ancestor of our current Downtime section. A reader had written in to suggest the “Turing” as a basic unit of computing power, prompting our cartoonist “Chad” to investigate this “great and unusual man”, who “went to the Foreign Office on the outbreak of war”. That piece refers to the “Bletchley Bicycle” – which Turing devised to stop the chain on his bike coming off after 17 pedal strokes. It does not, because it could not (even if its author knew of it), mention the German enciphering machines which Turing and his colleagues confounded.
Credit must be given where it is due. George Osborne it was who, as Chancellor, announced the funding for the Alan Turing Institute in 2014. This week, the Institute held an inaugural conference, The Turing Presents: AI UK, which showcased an impressive array of fundamental research, spanning topics such as data science for socio-economic shocks, modelling and predicting climate change, and AI applications in medical science.
Nevertheless, queasiness returns at the opportunistic appropriation of Turing’s name for the scheme to replace, for UK students, the EU Erasmus educational programme. On the one hand, it is an undeniably clever use of the Turing brand. On the other hand, it uses his name to surreptitiously score a political point against the EU, and that continental European civilisation of which the Dutch philosopher is such a potent personification.