Alan Turing

February 28, 2015 at 11:42 pm | Posted in Event Review, Film Review | Leave a comment
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I went to see The Imitation Game the other night and had a mixed reaction.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as Alan Turing, turns in a convincing performance; as does Alex Lawther, as the young Turing at boarding school.

On reflection I see the clever way the writers and directors managed to convey the crucial part the breaking of the German enigma machine generated ciphers played in shortening the war. The film simplifies events and uses a small handful of characters to convey a very broad set of issues; this avoids the need for a commentary track, or subtext, or more characters. The film is very tight, it all focuses on a handful of people in Hut 8.

Turing is vested just about every key decision and break through. So it is Turing who single handedly designed, costed, and built the machine that automated the repeated trials needed to find the key(s). It is Turing who decides to not use the intelligence freely, to avoid letting the German know that their confidential communications had been compromised. It is Turing who decides to recruit mathematicians and people good at crosswords. Turing who writes to Churchill asking for money to build a single electronic machine.

Unfortunately, it is not true. In fact there were close to 10,000 people working at (and around) Bletchley Park. Turing played a vital role; but there were others, but they get little screen time. Most unfortunately, Commander Denniston, who ran Bletchley Park, (played by Charles Dance channeling Tywin Lannister) comes across as a tyrant who actively worked against Turing and did not want Turing at all. This is so far from the truth as to insult the legacy of both men.

Cumberbatch’s puts in a great portrayal Turing; but I suspect it was of a different Turing – a fictional Turing, carefully crafted to tell a story based on the events at Bletchley Park, not the history of Bletchley Park. An terrible choice is to introduce the idea that Turing aided Russian spies (during the War) and was suspected of being a Russian spy (after the war). This is a terrible slight, with no basis in fact.

I went to see the film because I was going to Professor Rod Downey‘s talk on Turing and in the promotional material for the talk, it mentioned Bletchley Park.

Turing wrote one of the single most important papers of the 20th century on computers – providing a workable conceptual basis for them. Turing used what came to be known as ‘Turing machines‘ as part of a proof that it is not possible to proof the truth or falseness of any first-order predicate logic statement. During World War II, the direct application of this conceptual basis was to build specialised electrical machines to find the daily key for the code generated from German engima machines. Today, all programmable computers – general purpose computers – owe their origins to the description of a Turing machine.

Surely Alan Turing is one of the most unrecognised people of the 20th century.

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