The name of the late Alan Turing has been popping up in a number of places lately, with a coalition of computer scientists, historians, and LGBT activists coming together to petition the British government to issue an apology for what was done to Turing. See, Turing was a brilliant codebreaker and the man most responsible for cracking the Nazi Enigma code, which undoubtedly changed the course of the war in favor of the Allies; his work with theoretical computing (such as his thought experiment, the Turing machine) is directly responsible for the rise of computers as we know them today. Turing was also gay, and he was subjected to chemical castration when this fact was discovered. Turing committed suicide two years later.
British PM Gordon Brown did issue an apology, and it’s a pretty good one as far as that goes (Geoff Pullum notes here that it’s remarkable to see a politician utter the unambiguous words “we’re sorry,” and I tend to agree). The fact that an apology was issued is remarkable and a worthy tribute, but I rather like the tribute that poet Matt Harvey gave to Turing (HT: Geoff Pullum at Language Log):
here’s a toast to Alan Turing
born in harsher, darker times
who thought outside the container
and loved outside the lines
and so the code-breaker was broken
and we’re sorry
yes now the s-word has been spoken
the official conscience woken
— very carefully scripted but at least it’s not encrypted —
and the story does suggest
a part 2 to the Turing Test:
1. can machines behave like humans?
2. can we?
Can we, indeed.