Codebreaker’s nephew has insights on real Alan Turing


Sir Dermot Turing spoke at a special event Friday, Oct. 28 in the auditorium at The Scripps Research Institute about the life of his famous uncle, Alan Turing, the British codebreaker who was the subject of the 2014 movie “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Joanna Davies, founder, president and CEO of the San Diego Biomedical Research Institute (SDBRI) introduced the guest speaker by saying she had known Dermot a long time — they had been undergrads together. She continued, “Dermot is the ideal person to be talking about his famous uncle, Alan Turing, not only because he has access to family archives, documents, and letters being a family member of course, but he wrote his book ‘Prof, Alan Turing Decoded.’He approaches it with a charming sensitivity that this great man’s life deserves, but he is also a scientist—he has a Ph.D. in genetics. He has done a fabulous job of translating the complexities of mathematics and the early computer science to the lay person. He is also inherently a historian what you see is the depth that allows us to better understand the work of Alan Turing in the context of the time then and now.”

Sir Dermot also did a question-and-answer session on Oct. 27 following a screening of “The Imitation Game” at the Landmark Theaters in Hillcrest in an event that was presented by the SDBRI with promotional assistance from Lambda Archives, San Diego’s LGBT historical research center.

Alan Turing is considered a hero and a martyr to the gay community. After using his math skills to design the forerunner of the German Enigma code during World War II, in 1952, he was prosecuted for gross indecency for his homosexuality and in 1954 committed suicide, many believe due to the persecution he suffered. Sir Dermot said, “He would never have wanted to be remembered for being prosecuted, I think what he would have wanted to be remembered for what he contributed to the body of knowledge and it’s quite nice to see some of that less well-known work sort of come to the fore.”

In his remarks both days, Sir Dermot made it clear that “The Imitation Game” should not be seen as history as he pointed out the many inaccuracies of the film. He said he could enjoy the movie as a good drama as long as he didn’t worry about the facts and he is glad the movie shone light on his uncle’s work. Besides just being, “a gay icon, people are rediscovering his theories,” one of which was confirmed in 2014; Alan Turing’s name is showing up in citations in scientific journals again.

Sir Dermot said he finds it criminal the way his uncle was treated by society and the courts once his homosexuality was known and finds it unfair that though Alan was granted a posthumous pardon by the queen in 2013 that the effort to pardon the 49,000 other people who were prosecuted under the same indecency law in the U.K. has hit snags in Parliament.

The movie took its title from a paper Alan Turing wrote shortly after finishing his undergraduate work at Cambridge, speculating whether a machine could ever think like a human—or imitate the way a human thinks. The term “Turing Test” is still applied to the standard by which the artificial intelligence of a machine is judged.

In the 1930s, Alan Turing created an algorithm that would allow for machines to play chess, long before there was a machine capable of doing so. He kept up a lifelong correspondence with the mother of Christopher Morcom, his best friend from childhood who died young, but was probably the first love of Alan’s life. He wrote her long letters about his research into trying to program a machine to play the Japanese game “Go.” As with chess, getting a machine to play the game and getting one to actually master it to a point that it could beat a human was another thing. It was only in the last year, building on Alan’s work, that scientists created a program that enables a machine to best a human at Go. Of course the computation machines available to the scientists today are a bit more advanced that the ones Alan Turing had at his disposal. The one he was using in 1946 had 1024 bits—not bytes, bits—of memory which in the days of terabytes seems ridiculous, but the British government was so impressed with the size and power of that machine they questioned if the entire country would ever even need a second computer.

Sir Dermot said he is proud and pleased that his uncle is one of the giants on whose shoulders modern scientists stand and is finally receiving due credit for his work.