June 23, 2011
During World War II, the mathematician and logician ALAN TURING (1912-54) worked with British intelligence on cracking the Enigma, a German code machine of maddening complexity that relied on unique daily settings to set its multiple wheels humming; its secret messages were thought to be unbreakable. Turing specified the design for “the bombe,” a code-breaking machine which worked on the theorem that from a contradiction, you can deduce everything; perhaps only something so absurd on the face of it could serve to decode the impossible. The bombe not only unscrambled the Enigma’s gears, but surfaced its settings, filtering information out of noise. After the war, Turing turned his attention to computer science and artificial intelligence; his eponymous Test — the question behind which was Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game? — was aimed at tackling the central question in AI: can machines think? Today, computers and their metaphors are so pervasive (we conceive of our choices as algorithms, our world as information, and our friends as nodes in a social network); that the question has shifted, bit by bit, from are computers like us to are we like them? Due to unfortunate linkage in his own social network, Turing’s sexual orientation — illegal, in those days — was exposed, and he was stripped of his security clearances and made to undergo chemical castration. Soon afterward he was found dead of cyanide poisoning. In the end, the father of the information age turned out to be human, all too human. But it may be the measure of the man that no machine has reached our soaring hopes, nor our crushing despairs: the Turing Test has not yet been passed.
Take a Turing Test created last year by Peggy Nelson.
READ MORE about members of the Partisans generation (1904-13).