The Imitation Game: A Cautionary Tale

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

With The Imitation Game having academy award nominations, it’s a good movie to consider for science learning. Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly star in this story of Alan Turing. Turing is famous in computer science for the Turing Machine and the Turing Test. The latter was named by him as “the imitation game.”

A Turing Machine is a concept created by Turing that says that anything computable can be computed by a ridiculously simple machine consisting of a tape of indefinite length that contains only ones and zeroes and a reader that decides what to do upon reading the tape — to move forward or backward and how much. This decision depends on the state of the machine and the number read on the tape. Turing’s machine can, in theory, perform any computation being done today by any computer. You can say that Turing invented the modern computer — in theory anyway.

Alan Mathison Turing at the time of his election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society. Photograph was taken at the Elliott & Fry studio on 29 March 1951.

Alan Mathison Turing at the time of his election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society. Photograph was taken at the Elliott & Fry studio on 29 March 1951.

As Alan Turing sat and thought about computers, he asked himself what is the potential of computing machines in the indefinite future. He decided that it’s possible for a machine, in theory, to mimic human behavior. He then asked how can you tell if the machine truly is behaving as a human. In those days, all communication with machines was by writing or, worse, by looking at lights or blips on a CRT. His test involved writing to a machine and receiving written replies. If, no matter how much you wrote and read, you could not tell whether the replies were coming from a human or a machine, then the machine passed the test, “the imitation game,” and should be considered for all intents and purposes as human. 

With Chappie about to appear on theater screens, this concept becomes even more significant. The movie, Chappie, will certainly be more about what makes you human than whether a machine can be human. Turing is with us still, nonetheless. He showed mathematically that computers can compute anything computable by humans, only much faster as machines became more efficient.

If you plan to see The Imitation Game, you should also watch Codebreaker, which you can see on Netflix and possibly other sources. It’s pretty much the same story in documentary form. You’ll see what Joan Clarke really looked like and even have a brief moment of seeing and hearing her many years later talking about her experience with Turing. Unlike Knightly, she wore glasses. Like the character in the film, she was proposed to by Turing and was a member of the otherwise entirely male codebreaking group.

While the movie takes some liberties so that it can portray the intensity of wartime Britain, it mostly follows reality. While you cannot simply say that Turing won the war, it certainly is true that the war either would have been lost or would have lasted many years longer without Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. The work there to break the German code was the most secret project of the war at the time. It was so secret that Turing’s work was not even acknowledged until decades later, and he was just recently and posthumously pardoned by the Queen of England.

Given the circumstances, you might say that he died for his country at the young age of 41 in 1954. His death can be attributed to the secrecy that was maintained years after the war and to an astounding level of bigotry, by today’s standards, in England at that time. Had Turing’s efforts been acknowledged earlier or had there not been anti-homosexual laws on the books, he might still be alive and have contributed much more to our understanding of the nature and potential of computers.

The movie moves along in a series of incidents from the outbreak of war to Turing’s death. Because it’s a dramatic rendering, it misses some points, emphasizes others, and makes various other adjustments. For this reason, if the topic interests you, you really should see Codebreaker.

There’s much to be gained from a discussion of the computing part of this story, and those of you involved in teaching any aspect of computing should find good material for your classes.

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