Sherlock Holmes star to feature in a new movie about Alan Turing

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tags: computers, LGBT, technology, gay

The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is opening in wide release later this fall, bringing the tragic story of Alan Turing to the movies. Turing (1912-1954) was a key figure in the development of both the computer and artificial intelligence, as well as the leader of the cryptographers who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code. He was also a homosexual at a time when gay sex was illegal in Britain. In 1952, he was prosecuted for “gross indecency” and underwent chemical castration. He ended his life before his 42nd birthday.

This 1955 obituary from the Royal Society is fascinating for what it leaves out of the first draft of history: the homosexuality and his cyanide-induced death, unsurprisingly, but also his pivotal work breaking the Enigma code. This was still classified ten years after the war’s end. For six years from 1938, Turing “was fully occupied with his duties for the Foreign Office.” Cracking Enigma was a big part of the Allied effort to defeat the Axis. This classic example of British understatement ends by noting that, whatever those duties were, Turing was awarded an O.B.E. for them.

As geniuses often do, Turing was publishing major mathematical papers in his twenties. But his later paper in Mind, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” from 1950, may be the most famous today. It introduced what we now call the “Turing Test” to determine whether a computer has genuine intelligence. It begins succinctly: “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’”

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