Fairness at last? The Turing Apology

Last Easter weekend I watched the film The Tuskeegee Airmen (1995), the story of the struggles that black American aviators went through in order to fly WWII missions for their country. From automatically labeled as unfit to fly due to epilepsy by flight surgeons, to the levels of prejudice from their fellow servicemen, it was both a celebration of human spirit as well as a glimpse into the unabashed levels of racism existing a scant 65 or so years ago.

It reminded me of an equally sad event: The treatment of Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who helped turn the tide of WWII.  Until its declassification in 1974, the fact that the Allies were able to decrypt enemy communications throughout the war was not known. This project, known as Ultra, involved the breaking of the codes generated by the Enigma cypher machine used by the Germans and Japanese.  The Ultra decrypted information gave the Allies crucial advantages such as being able to locate and sink the U-Boats that were strangling Britain’s supply links as well as direct aircraft to the right places in the Battle of Britain.  The counter deceptions used to disguise and safeguard the fact that the Allies had decrypted enemy activities and movements are also fascinating, and thanks to these efforts, Enigma was assumed to be secure throughout the war.

The Enigma codes had to be broken regularly and quickly so that the information contained in the encrypted messages would still be relevant.  Though the codebreaking was a painstaking team effort by thousands of people, Turing played a crucial role in developing methods to speed up the codebreaking, often by the same day.  It is widely mentioned that the breaking of the Axis codes helped shorten the European war by two years and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives.  Ultra’s contributions also extended to the war in the Pacific, where the Americans also were able to decrypt the Japanese communications and gain the strategic advantage.  Even with the insider information from Ultra, the very fact that the war lasted as long as it did with such a cost in resources and lives serves to show how narrow a victory margin it actually was.  Ultra may have made the decisive difference.

Besides his wartime contributions that were not known until three decades after the war, the field of computing owes a great debt to Turing’s pioneering work in cryptography and computer science, including the concept of the algorithm in programming and the Turing machine.  In 1999, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the 20th Century.

Given all this, it is incredibly tragic that his contributions to the world were repaid through a most horrifying and inhumane way.  In 1952, he was arrested and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ — of homosexuality, which was illegal in Britain at the time — when he reported to police investigating a break-in at his house that he was involved with a man associated with the crime.  His sentence was a choice of prison time or probation with chemical castratation through hormone injections (the prevailing belief being that he suffered from a lack of female hormones); he chose the latter.  Two years later, he was dead at age 41, from an apparent suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple.

His memorial statue in Manchester commemorates his life: Father of Computer Science, Mathematician, Logician, Wartime Codebreaker, Victim of Prejudice.  What else could the world have benefited from if his life had not been cut short?

Thanks to several online petitions and a Facebook Group, the Gordon Brown government did finally issue an apology last September 2009, noting his contribution to humankind, and calling his treatment “appaling”.  Regardless of the sincerity or motivation behind the apology (Some Britons called it a PR stunt), there is some strange justice that Turing’s legacy in computing was the catalyst for getting him the recognition and apology he never received while he was alive. 

So perhaps next Remembrance Day, we should make sure to acknowledge the contributions of civilians like Turing, whose fighting of the war was conducted not with firearms, but with sliderules, pencils, paper, relays, gears, wheels, wires, and valves.  And to acknowledge, I hope, how far our society has come from the days of Ultra and Tuskeegee.