Something Happened: If You Don’t Know About Him, You Should

There’s always a push-back against any form of social progression.

The current brouhaha over gay marriage is much the same issue, traditionalists using whatever means and tools that come to hand to defend what they see as a traditional or biblical definition of marriage versus those who see it as a demonstration of love or a contract between parties.

It’s a political eventuality that gay marriage will be approved at a Federal level sometime within the next decade (though, honestly, far too long to wait in my opinion), but viewed through the lens that Tasmania only repealed its sodomy laws in 1997, it seems we’re making progress at a cracking pace.

I make a living building software. I make money writing little parcels of code that turn data into something else. We live in an incredible world where the titans of industry apart from fossil fuels are technology companies. Companies that stand firmly on the shoulders of giants when it comes to making things that make our lives, and the world, hopefully a better place.

When you think of the people who made the world like this, you’d likely nominate Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and you’d be right, but they all stood on the shoulders of a great giant who only recently started getting the degree of attention and airplay he deserved outside of computer science circles.

You’d think a genius who invented the basics of modern computer science, built a machine that helped crack Nazi codes and win WWII among many staggering achievements would be paraded from the rooftops as a paragon of intellect, a historical exemplar for us all to follow. Turing’s promising career was cut short by one simple fact; he was gay at a time that it was a crime in the UK.

I don’t mean to overstate Turing’s contributions to a sector that generates millions of jobs and trillions in revenue worldwide but he was the first person to formalise the concept of computation and his thought experiment a Turing machine is the fundamental concept of a modern computer.

A Turing machine is also deceptively simple, it’s a machine that takes in data and modifies it based on a set of internal rules. Now to you or I this seems incredibly obvious and easy, but this concept predated the microprocessor, hell it predated the transistor.

The history of the scientific process is littered with tiny ideas that germinate a boom in thought and creativity, the Turing machine is one such example, but the impact of it on society is, I dare say, greater than Darwin’s proven thesis of evolution. He was also the father of the litmus test for artificial intelligence, the ‘Turing test’. A person engages in a natural language discussion with what is either another participant or a computer, if they cannot tell the person from the computer, the computer has passed the Turing test.

Not only did he kick-start the computational revolution, Turing saved the lives of millions through his work on breaking Nazi cryptography. Whilst working at Bletchley Park during WWII, Turing worked on combating German ciphers, and was instrumental in devising a way to determine what settings were used to encrypt transmitted German cipher text.

The ability to crack this text allowed the Allied forces to interdict attempted German military advances and allowed the Allied forces to guarantee there were no security leaks about the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Turing’s cryptanalysis was a turning point in the war, his research helped save millions from the Nazi war machine.

There is no denying that Turing was a genius whose work has touched almost every single human being on the planet but his end was a depressing one and one that should be consistently brought up as we debate about why certain sections of the population should have their rights reduced or denied based on their personal lives.

Turing was chemically castrated (as an alternative to serving time in prison) when convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1952 for having a homosexual relationship. He was stripped of his security clearance and was no longer permitted to work on cryptography for GCHQ. He committed suicide, alone in his apartment in 1954.

Every time you turn on a computer or read Facebook or tweet or, hell, Google something, you should just be aware of the hero that helped to make that happen and the fate he was consigned to because of the society he lived in.

What happened to Turing happened in the lifetime of many people who are alive today. We’ve come a long way and yes we do no longer imprison people or chemically castrate them for being gay in the developed world, but we still have some broad steps to take until we achieve true equality.

Dan Nolan