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During this week in which we recognized the 80th anniversary of D-Day, those interested in world history, the history of computers, how AI developed, or human rights should watch “The Imitation Game,” available on Netflix. This movie tells the story of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician from the mid-1900’s. The movie focuses on two main parts of his life.

First, during World War II, Turing led the team at Bletchley Park that cracked the code of the Nazi’s Enigma machine. This machine was used to send secret messages, and breaking its code was crucial. It’s believed that decoding these messages helped to make D-Day successful. And it’s estimated that it helped the Allies win the war two years sooner saving over 14 million lives.

Instead of trying to figure out the Enigma codes by hand, which had 159 million million million (159 X 1018) possible combinations, Turing had a better idea. He built a machine that could analyze and break these codes much faster than any person could. This “Turing Machine” was a type of computer, based on ideas he had written about in papers from 1936 and 1937. Turing’s machine at Bletchley Park was specialized for breaking Enigma codes, but in 1944, a team led by Grace Hopper developed what is now considered to be the world’s first general purpose computer, and its design was based largely on the Turing Machine concept.

In 1950, Turing wrote about whether machines could think. He suggested that if someone couldn’t tell if they were communicating with a machine or a person, the machine could be considered intelligent. This idea became known as the Turing Test. For many years, people have tried to create computers that could pass this test, but it wasn’t until the recent development of Generative AI, like ChatGPT, that this became more feasible.

Alan Turing’s ideas were foundational for both the IT revolution and the modern AI developments that are changing our world today. For a good summary of Turing’s work with links to his papers, check out Jesse Torres’ LinkedIn article, “Alan Turing: The Pioneer Behind Modern AI.”

The second important part of Turing’s life covered in the movie is his persecution for being gay. In the UK at that time, being gay was a crime. Between 1885 and 1967, over 49,000 men were convicted of “gross indecency” in the UK, a crime punishable by prison.

In 1952, Turing was prosecuted for being gay. He was given the choice between prison and chemical castration, a treatment to reduce his sexual urges, and he chose the latter so he could continue his work. However, this treatment and the societal persecution took a heavy toll on him. In 1954, at just 41 years old, Turing died by suicide. His death was a great loss to the world of science and technology.

Today, some authoritarian leaders still persecute LGBTQ+ people, and in some places, laws against homosexuality are being reintroduced. Even in countries like the United States, there are movements to reverse rights like gay marriage. We must remember Turing’s story and ensure that no more brilliant minds are lost to such prejudices.


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