In February, the Liberal Democrat Lord Sharkey introduced the possibility of a pardon in the House of Lords, only to have his proposal rebuffed by Lord McNally, the justice minister. McNally argued that Turing “was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd — particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution.”
As British lawmaker John Leechsubsequently noted, such was not the logic applied in the case of 300 World War I soldiers who had been executed for desertion and were pardoned posthumously in 2006. Most of these soldiers had suffered from shell shock. If they were deemed worthy of a pardon, why not Turing?
In a letter sent near the end of his life to his friend Norman Routledge, Turing, who on top of everything else was a gifted writer, crafted this mordant syllogism:
Turing believes machines think.
Turing lies with men.
Therefore machines cannot think.
What he feared most, in other words, was that his prosecution would be used as an excuse to kill his ideas. Thank God he was wrong.
Indeed, all one needs to do is look at an iPhone to see how thoroughly Turing’s concept of a “universal machine” has shaped our consciousness. Not only that, he is finally getting the recognition he deserves. On a visit in 2009 to Middlebury College, where professors Michael Olinick and Robert Martin were teaching a freshman seminar on Turing’s life and work, I met a group of bright undergraduates for whom Turing’s genius was as remarkable as his homosexuality was ordinary. One of these students told me that his ambition was to reinvigorate the field of artificial intelligence by returning to first principles — the principles that Turing laid out in his papers on the subject.
Whether or not the British Parliament erases his ludicrous conviction, it seems that Turing himself is unerasable. And that is reason to celebrate.
David Leavitt is a professor at the University of Florida and the author of “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Origins of the Computer.”
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