It might be worth asking ourselves what might the world look like if the man who won World War II and created the digital technology revolution had been allowed to live as an openly gay man, to marry, and create a family?
There is a strong argument that the most important person of the 20th century was not Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt or even Steve Jobs.
Rather that honor should belong to Alan Turing, who may be more responsible than anyone else for the outcome of World War II, and is generally regarded as the father of the world’s computer revolution. Turing, as the leading mathematician at Bletchley Park, the British decoding operation that was routinely reading the German’s most secret communications, must have impacted the results of every battle and every diplomatic initiative in World War II.
One example recently discussed in Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre, is that thanks to Bletchley Park and Turing, the Allies were reading so much of the reporting of the German’s intelligence reports to Hitler, that we knew, almost to a certainty, that the Allied plan to convince the Germans that the main attack on France would not come in Normandy was a complete success – with immeasurable impact on the continuing campaign of misinformation, on the battle for France, and the outcome of the war.
Similar operations in Washington, working closely with Bletchley Park, were reading the Japanese cable traffic during the battle of Midway, almost in real time. It’s hard to win a naval battle when the enemy knows not just where you are, but where you have told your ships to go. Midway turned the tide in the Pacific.
Turing’s creating of almost the entire field of computer science – and thus of perhaps the most transformative industry since the steam engine – is no less significant. While many of his papers were kept secret for 70 years, his work established foundations for the theoretical basis of problem solving using digital techniques.
In 1954, Turing died of cyanide poisoning. While there remains dispute, it is broadly believed that he killed himself after being forced to undergo chemical castration following a criminal conviction for “gross indecency” for homosexual acts, which were still illegal in the United Kingdom. (Cyanide was found in his body, and a half-eaten apple was next found to him. The apple was never tested.)
On September 10, 2009, then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology: “So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” Too little, too late, but a trigger for thought.
I ask you to consider two alternative histories. Supposing Turing had been hounded to his death in 1939 instead of 1954. World War II might have ended completely differently, and even if, after millions more deaths and a different map of Europe, it had still ended with the defeat of Nazism, whatever computer world we might now have would surely have been fundamentally different. Indeed, as technology moves to human-like interfaces, we should all remember that the Turing Test, developed by Turing in 1950 poses the challenge whether a human can tell if he or she is talking to a computer or to a human.
Or what about a happier alternative? Suppose that Turing had been allowed to live – and to continue his work, and had to chosen to marry a man and nurture a family, instead of being driven into a marginal world and then death. What world would we be living in now?
Might the difference between the world in which we live, and the one he might have helped create be as big as the difference between the world in which we live and the one he helped us avoid?
What might his children have contributed?
Its not just about civil rights – its about what we all gain – even the most homophobic – when all people are free to live, love, create, and contribute.
p.s. Steve Jobs was once asked if the Apple logo with its bite out had been intended as homage to Turing, through a reference to his mode of believed suicide. His reply: “God, we wish it were.“