Alan Turing: The Enigma

317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is so, because mathematical reality is built that way.

Alan had become more prepared to go along with the system. It was not that he had ever rebelled, for he had only withdrawn; nor was it now a reconciliation, for he was still withdrawn. But he would take the ‘obvious duties’ as conventions rather than impositions, as long as they interfered with nothing important.

Alan had by this time developed a skilful technique for dealing with his family, and his mother in particular. They all thought of him as devoid of common sense, and he in turn would rise to the role of absent-minded professor. ‘Brilliant but unsound’, that was Alan to his mother, who undertook to keep him in touch with all those important matters of appearance and manners, such as buying a new suit every year (which he never wore), Christmas presents, aunts’ birthdays, and getting his hair cut.

All this was wasted on Alan, whose set work was Hamlet. For a brief moment he pleased his father by saying that at least there was one line he liked. The pleasure was dissipated when Alan explained it was the last line: ‘Exeunt, bearing off the bodies….

Atheist, homosexual, eccentric, marathon-running English mathematician, A. M. Turing was in large part responsible not only for the concept of computers, incisive theorems about their powers, and a clear vision of the possibility of computer minds, but also for the cracking of German ciphers during the Second World War.

But whatever these were, it was clear that here was part of Alan that was so; that part of his reality was shaped that way.

can thinking and feeling emerge from patterns of activity in different sorts of substrate – organic, electronic, or otherwise?

Could a machine ever be said to have made its own decisions? Could a machine have beliefs? Could a machine make mistakes? Could a machine believe it made its own decisions? Could a machine erroneously attribute free will to itself? Could a machine come up with ideas that had not been programmed into it in advance? Could creativity emerge from a set of fixed rules? Are we – even the most creative among us – but passive slaves to the laws of physics that govern our neurons?

David Hilbert, the towering mathematical intellect of the previous thirty years, had put it thus:9 ‘Mathematics knows no races … for mathematics, the whole cultural world is a single country’,

For Alan Turing did not think of himself as placed in a superior category by virtue of his brains, and only insisted upon playing what happened to be his own special part.

For him, breaking the Enigma was much easier than the problem of dealing with other people, especially with those holding power.

For him there had to be a reason for everything; it had to make sense – and to make one sense, not two.

He called the scientific subjects ‘low cunning’, and would sniff and say, ‘This room smells of mathematics! Go out and fetch a disinfectant spray!

He developed a particularly annoying way of ignoring the teaching during the term and then coming top in the examination.

He made a more explicit defence of his tea-mug (again irreplaceable, in war-time conditions) by attaching it with a combination lock to a Hut 8 radiator pipe. But it was picked, to tease him.

He was one of those many people without a natural sense of left and right, and he made a little red spot on his left thumb, which he called ‘the knowing spot

Hilbert had written of Galileo that in his recantation ‘he was not an idiot. Only an idiot could believe that scientific truth needs martyrdom – that may be necessary in religion, but scientific results prove themselves in time.’ But this was not a trial of scientific truth.

His was the other road to freedom, that of dedication to his craft.

In 1950 he was hardly likely to be on trial for heresy. But he certainly felt himself up against an irrational, superstitious barrier, and his predisposition was to defy

In short, can thinking and feeling emerge from patterns of activity in different sorts of substrate – organic, electronic, or otherwise?

Is a mind a complicated kind of abstract pattern that develops in an underlying physical substrate, such as a vast network of nerve cells? If so, could something else be substituted for the nerve cells – something such as ants, giving rise to an ant colony that thinks as a whole and has an identity – that is to say, a self? Or could something else be substituted for the tiny nerve cells, such as millions of small computational units made of arrays of transistors, giving rise to an artificial neural network with a conscious mind? Or could software simulating such richly interconnected computational units be substituted, giving rise to a conventional computer (necessarily a far faster and more capacious one than we have ever seen) endowed with a mind and a soul and free will?

Is there intelligence without life? Is there mind without communication? Is there language without living? Is there thought without experience?

most creative among us – but passive slaves to the laws of physics that govern our neurons? Could machines have emotions? Do our emotions and our intellects belong to separate compartments of our selves? Could machines be enchanted by ideas, by people, by other machines? Could machines be attracted to each other, fall in love? What would be the social norms for machines in love? Would there be proper and improper types of machine love affairs? Could a machine be frustrated and suffer? Could a frustrated machine release its pent-up feelings by going outdoors and self-propelling ten miles? Could a machine learn to enjoy the sweet pain of marathon running? Could a machine with a seeming zest for life destroy itself purposefully one day, planning the entire episode so as to fool its mother machine into ‘thinking’ (which, of course, machines cannot do, since they are mere hunks of inorganic matter) that it had perished by accident?

Perhaps this was the most surprising thing about Alan Turing. Despite all he had done in the war, and all the struggles with stupidity, he still did not think of intellectuals or scientists as forming a superior class.

Riemann Hypothesis,

The headmaster used to expound the meaning of school life in his sermons.15 Sherborne was not, he explained, entirely devoted to ‘opening the mind’, although ‘historically … this was the primary meaning of school.’ Indeed, said the headmaster, there was ‘constantly a danger of forgetting the original object of school.’ For the English public school had been consciously developed into what he called ‘a nation in miniature’. With a savage realism, it dispensed with the lip service paid to such ideas as free speech, equal justice and parliamentary democracy, and concentrated upon the fact of precedence and power. As the headmaster put it: In form-room and hall and dormitory, on the field and on parade, in your relations with us masters and in the scale of seniority among yourselves, you have become familiar with the ideas of authority and obedience, of cooperation and loyalty, of putting the house and the school above your personal desires … The great theme of the ‘scale of seniority’ was the balance of privilege and duty, itself reflecting the more worthy side of the British Empire. But this was a theme to which ‘opening the mind’ came as at best an irrelevance.

The line between the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘intelligent’ was very, very slightly blurred.

The point of what Einstein had done did not lie in this or that experiment. It lay, as Alan saw, in the ability to doubt, to take ideas seriously, and to follow them to a logical if upsetting conclusion.

The popular view that scientists proceed inexorably from well-established fact to well-established fact, never being influenced by any unproved conjecture, is quite mistaken. Provided it is made clear which are proved facts and which are conjectures, no harm can result. Conjectures are of great importance since they suggest useful lines of research.

you were either a gentleman or not a gentleman, and if you were a gentleman you struggled to behave as such, whatever your income might be … Probably the distinguishing mark of the upper-middle class was that its traditions were not to any extent commercial, but mainly military, official, and professional. People in this class owned no land, but they felt that they were landowners in the sight of God and kept up a semi-aristocratic outlook by going into the professions and the fighting services rather than into trade. Small boys used to count the plum stones on their plates and foretell their destiny by chanting ‘Army, Navy, Church, Medicine, Law’.