Tag Archives: Alan Turing

September 4, 1957 (a Wednesday)

A page from the Wolfeden Report.

A page from the Wolfeden Report.

On this date, the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden Report, after Lord Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee) was published in Britain. It was significant for recommending that homosexual behavior in private between consenting adults, (i.e., over 21) should be decriminalized. The first printing of 5,000 copies of the 155-page document sold out in a matter of hours, and the report quickly went through numerous reprintings.

Male homosexuality had been illegal in England since the Buggery Act of 1533 (female homosexuality was never specified). The law became much more strict in 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made all homosexual acts illegal, even those carried out in private. Perhaps the most famous prosecution was that of the writer Oscar Wilde in 1895.

The number of convictions rose rapidly in the immediate period after World War II as the Home Office pursued prosecution more rigorously. In 1952, there had been 670 prosecutions in England for sodomy; 3,087 prosecutions for attempted sodomy or indecent assault; and 1,686 prosecutions for so-called gross indecency.

At that time, homosexuality was also the subject of sensationalist reporting in the popular press, and there were a number of high profile cases involving public figures. In 1951, the Russian spies Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess, both known to be homosexual, defected to the USSR. Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code, was victimized for his homosexuality. Charged in 1952 with “gross indecency”, he chose hormone treatment as punishment (the alternative was prison). He also lost his job. His death in June 1954 was treated as suicide. In 1953, newly-knighted Sir John Gielgud was arrested after trying to pick up a man in a public toilet who turned out to be an undercover policeman. He was found guilty of “persistently importuning for immoral purposes.” In 1954, the sensational trial of the Montagu/Pitt-Rivers/Wildeblood case was held, resulting in a peer (Lord Montagu of Beaulieu), his cousin (Michael Pitt-Rivers), and a journalist (Peter Wildeblood) being convicted of having had sexual relations with young working class men. They received sentences ranging from twelve to eighteen months imprisonment.

All of these events and controversies created pressure for a re-evaluation of the criminalization of homosexuality. Two MPs in December 1953 called upon the government to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the law relating to homosexual offenses, leading the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, to appoint the Departmental Committee in August 1954.

In addition to Wolfenden, the committee consisted of eleven men and three women, of whom thirteen served for the entire three years of the committee’s deliberations. The committee included, among others, two judges, a Foreign Office official, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, a Conservative MP, a consulting psychiatrist, the vice-president of the City of Glasgow Girl Guides, and a professor of moral theology. It was charged “to consider (a) the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts; and (b) the law and practice relating to offences against the criminal law in connection with prostitution and solicitation for immoral purposes, and to report what changes, if any, are desirable.”

The committee met for the first time on September 15, 1954. Over a period of three years, they interviewed religious leaders, policemen, judges, probation officers, psychiatrists, social workers, and homosexuals. When they issued their report in 1957, all but one of the thirteen members still sitting on the committee agreed that homosexual acts should be decriminalized if they took place in private, with consent, between persons at least 21 years of age and not members of the armed forces or the merchant navy.

The committee condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive to individuals, but concluded that outlawing homosexuality impinged on civil liberties and that private morality or immorality should not be “the law’s business.” The function of the law, the committee wrote:

…is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others, particularly those who are specially vulnerable…. It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour, further than is necessary to carry out the purposes we have outlined.


Interview with Sir John Wolfenden in 1967.

The basis on which the Wolfenden committee made its recommendations was essentially a restatement of the famous “harm principle” of John Stuart Mill, which he stated in his best-known work, On Liberty (1859). Here, Mill’s defense of liberty is as uncompromising as he can make it:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.

The sole dissenter from the majority’s recommendation, James Adair, disassociated himself from the Wolfenden Report, declaring that relaxing the law on homosexuality would be regarded by many homosexuals as “licensing licentiousness.”

Interestingly, despite the testimony of numerous psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, the committee refused to classify homosexuality as a mental illness requiring psychiatric intervention. It found that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.” It did, however, urge continued research into the causes and potential cures of homosexuality, such as hormone treatments and psychiatric therapy.

The recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality was widely condemned by many religious and political leaders and by a host of newspapers. The committee’s refusal to declare homosexuality a disease provoked the condemnation of psychiatrists. On the other hand, the British Medical Association, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the National Association of Probation Officers supported the committee’s recommendations. Somewhat surprisingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Fisher, made an eloquent plea on behalf of the recommendations, declaring that:

There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility.

The home secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, was deeply disappointed in the Wolfenden Report. He no doubt expected the committee to recommend additional ways of controlling homosexual behavior, rather than decriminalizing it. In any case, he expressed doubt that the general population would support reform and declined to take action to implement the committee’s recommendation, calling instead for “additional study.” In fact, it took a good ten years for the recommendations in the Report to become law with the new Sexual Offences Act in 1967.


June 23, 1912 (a Sunday)

Alan Turing Memorial in Sackville Park, Manchester, England. The statue depicts Turing holding an apple in his right hand, a reference to the way he chose to end his life. That was Turing’s last message to the world, with clear parallels not only to the legendary scientific knowledge of Isaac Newton, but also to the biblical interpretation of forbidden love.

Alan Turing Memorial in Sackville Park, Manchester, England. The statue depicts Turing holding an apple in his right hand, a reference to the way he chose to end his life. That was Turing’s last message to the world, with clear parallels not only to the legendary scientific knowledge of Isaac Newton, but also to the biblical interpretation of forbidden love.

On this date, the mathematician Alan Mathison Turing was born. Turing was a genius and a visionary who foresaw the digital world in which we now live and who believed machines would one day think. In the eyes of scientists today, Turing sits alongside Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin at the table of scientific greats.

Turing’s first professional success came with publication of his paper entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (1936). In the course of solving Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem (Decision Problem), Turing invented the hypothetical device that became known as the Turing machine, and proved that some such machine would be capable of performing any conceivable mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm. Andrew Hodges, a biographer of Turing, describes it this way:

The concept of “the Turing machine” is like that of “the formula” or “the equation”; there is an infinity of possible Turing machines, each corresponding to a different “definite method” or algorithm. But imagine, as Turing did, each particular algorithm written out as a set of instructions in a standard form. Then the work of interpreting the instructions and carrying them out is itself a mechanical process, and so can itself be embodied in a particular Turing machine, namely the Universal Turing machine. A Universal Turing machine can be made do what any other particular Turing machine would do, by supplying it with the standard form describing that Turing machine. One machine, for all possible tasks.

It is hard now not to think of a Turing machine as a computer program, and the mechanical task of interpreting and obeying the program as what the computer itself does. Thus, the Universal Turing Machine embodies the essential principle of the computer: a single machine which can be turned to any well-defined task by being supplied with the appropriate program.

This is why Turing is given credit for having invented the principle of the modern computer.

But in the 1930s, when Turing began working on the Entscheidungsproblem, the word “computer” had a meaning different from the one it has today: it meant simply a person who did computations — that is to say, a person engaged in the active use of algorithms. Turing wrote:

We may compare a man in the process of computing a real number to a machine which is only capable of a finite number of conditions q1, q2, …, qR which will be called “mconfigurations”. The machine is supplied with a “tape”, (the analogue of paper) running through it, and divided into sections (called “squares”) each capable of bearing a “symbol”.

The point should be emphasized: Turing was not considering the computing machines of his day. No such machines existed at the time, only calculating devices too crude to undertake any complex mathematics, and certainly not programmable. He was actually modelling the action of human minds. The physical machines would come ten years later.

British mathematician Alan Turing, shown aged 16 at the Sherborne School in Dorset in 1928.

Turing is best known for his work in cracking the Nazi codes, which gave the allies a consistent intelligence advantage over the enemy, shortening World War II by years and saving millions of lives. “Turing arguably made a greater contribution to defeating the Nazis than Eisenhower or Churchill. Thanks to Turing and his ‘Ultra’ colleagues at Bletchley Park, Allied generals in the field were consistently, over long periods of the war, privy to detailed German plans before the German generals had time to implement them,” said Richard Dawkins. “After the war, when Turing’s role was no longer top-secret, he should have been knighted and fêted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed, for a ‘crime’, committed in private, which harmed nobody,” referring to Turing’s sexual orientation.

Turing also devised what is known today as the “Turing Test.” The Turing test is a proposal for a test of a machine’s capability to perform human-like conversation. Described by Alan Turing in the 1950 paper entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence“, it proceeds as follows: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with two other parties, one a human and the other a machine; if the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then the machine is said to pass the test. It is assumed that both the human and the machine try to appear human. In order to keep the test setting simple and universal (to explicitly test the linguistic capability of some machine), the conversation is usually limited to a text-only channel, such as a teletype machine as Turing suggested.

However, Turing was a gay man living in an era when the word still meant “happy” or “lighthearted” and anyone who acted on a homosexual impulse was subject to criminal prosecution, not only in England where Turing lived but in many other countries as well. Nevertheless, rather naive and somewhat unworldly, Turing was never particularly concerned to hide his sexuality, and throughout his life he spoke openly of his attraction to men.

In 1952, Arnold Murray, a 19-year-old recent acquaintance of Turing’s, helped an accomplice to break into Turing’s house, and Turing went to the police to report the crime. As a result of the police investigation, Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray, and a crime having been identified and settled, they were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.

Turing came to trial on 31 March 1952 and made no serious denial or defense, instead telling everyone that he saw no wrong with his actions. He was particularly concerned to be open about his sexuality even in the hard and unsympathetic atmosphere of his profession in Manchester, England. Turing was convicted of the same crime Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than 50 years before. He was given the choice between imprisonment or probation, the latter conditional on his undergoing hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. To avoid going to jail, he accepted the estrogen hormone injections, which lasted for a year, with side effects including gynecomastia (breast enlargement). His lean runner’s body took on fat. His conviction led to a removal of his security clearance and prevented him from continuing consultancy for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) on cryptographic matters. At this time, there was acute public anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents. In America, Robert Oppenheimer had just been deemed a security risk.

On June 8, 1954, his housekeeper found Turing dead, with a half-eaten apple left beside his bed; the previous day, he had died of cyanide poisoning. The apple itself was never tested for contamination with cyanide. The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental; there was enough poison to fill a wine glass. Turing, thought the pathologist, had taken bites from the apple to make his last drink more palatable. Although he left no note, most believe that his death was intentional; Turing had himself spoken of suicide. His mother, however, strenuously argued that the ingestion was accidental due to his careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have killed himself in this ambiguous way quite deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability. Others suggest that Turing was reenacting a scene from “Snow White”, reportedly his favorite fairy tale. It has even been suggested that Turing’s suicide was in fact the work of the British secret service determined to remove a security risk.

Interestingly, in 1928 while a student at Sherborne School, Turing fell in love with a boy one year ahead of him in school, Christopher Morcom. The boys bonded over their shared passion for science. Unfortunately, on 13 February 1930, Turing’s beloved Christopher died at the age of 18 of bovine tuberculosis, which he had contracted years earlier when he drank tainted milk. His death profoundly affected Turing and may have spurred his intellectual achievements.

A letter sent from Alan Turing to Christopher Morcom’s mother.

In his biography of Turing, Andrew Hodges refers to an essay Turing wrote to the mother of his deceased boyfriend:

He fell in unrequited love with Christopher Morcom, a very talented youth in the school sixth form, and his longing for friendship brought him to communicate. A brief flowering of scientific collaboration perished when Morcom suddenly died in February 1930 of tuberculosis. Turing’s correspondence with the dead boy’s mother gives insight into the development of his ideas in the aftermath. He was concerned to believe the dead boy could still exist in spirit, and to reconcile such a belief with science. To this end he wrote for Mrs Morcom an essay [entitled ‘Nature of Spirit‘], probably in 1932. It is the private writing of a twenty-year-old, and must be read as testament to background and not as a thesis upheld in public; nevertheless it is a key to Turing’s future development.

The essay begins with a general account of the influence of developments in physics and quantum mechanics on the scientific conception of the universe, then moves quickly into the question of free will:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then must really break down on the small scale. This means that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are predestined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it. The rest of the body acts so as to amplify this.

In stating the classic paradox of physical determinism and free will, Turing is influenced by Arthur Stanley Eddington’s assertion that quantum mechanical physics (“more modern science”) yields room for human will. Eddington asked how could “this collection of ordinary atoms be a thinking machine?” and Turing tries to find some answer.

There is now the question which must be answered as to how the action of the other atoms of the universe are regulated. Probably by the same law and simply by the remote effects of spirit but since they have no amplifying apparatus they seem to be regulated by pure chance. The apparent non-predestination of physics is almost a combination of chances.

Here, Turing says that although the atoms, in their action, “seem to be regulated by pure chance” (emphasis added), in fact they are “probably” subject to the same “will” by means of which we as human beings are able to control at least a small portion of our brains. Thus the “remote effects of spirit” have not, in fact, been banished.

As McTaggart shows matter is meaningless in the absence of spirit (throughout I do not mean by matter that which can be a solid a liquid or a gas so much as that which is dealt with by physics e.g. light and gravitations as well i.e. that which forms the universe). Personally I think that spirit is really eternally connected with matter but certainly not always by the same kind of body. I did believe it possible for a spirit at death to go to a universe entirely separate from our own, but now I consider that matter and spirit are so connected that this would be a contradiction in terms. It is possible however but unlikely that such universes may exist.

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit,” whilst the body is alive and awake the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by NPL Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

By the time of the publication of “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950, Turing had decided that artificial intelligence was possible — a machine could be built that could have the qualities of a human mind — which his now-famous test was designed to detect. In his paper he addressed an argument opposed to his view:

This argument is very well expressed in Professor Jefferson’s Lister Oration for 1949, from which I quote. ‘Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain — that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants.’ This argument appears to be a denial of the validity of our test. According to the most extreme form of this view the only way by which one could be sure that a machine thinks is to be the machine and to feel oneself thinking. One could then describe these feelings to the world, but of course no one would be justified in taking any notice. Likewise according to this view the only way to know that a man thinks is to be that particular man. It is in fact the solipsist point of view.

The gist of Turing’s view now was that the existence of consciousness (“but know that it had written it”) is an illusion, a quality emerging from and ultimately to be explained by great complexity. His approach would not accept “intentionality” as any better an explanation than “spirit” or “soul”. In this conviction he is close to Buddhism. “I do not wish to give the impression that I think there is no mystery about consciousness,” he wrote. “There is, for instance, something of a paradox connected with any attempt to localize it.”

The mystery of how matter comes to support human mind was the burning theme of Alan Turing’s lifelong inquiry. In 1932, he believed that “spirit” could live on, and in a sense he proved that yes, it could. In the end, Christopher Morcom’s spirit lived on not in his body but in a wholly different form, in the work of Alan Turing.


June 13, 1863 (a Saturday)

On this date, “Darwin Among the Machines” appeared as the heading of an article published in The Press newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand. Written by Samuel Butler but signed Cellarius, the article raised the possibility that machines were a kind of “mechanical life” undergoing constant evolution, and that eventually machines might supplant humans as the dominant species:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.


Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

The article ended by urging that “war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race.” This article, along with later writings by Butler on “machine evolution”, was arguably satirical in intent, although he may have been using these fanciful writings to explore some real philosophical issues like the question of whether biological life and evolution can be explained in purely mechanical terms.

An artificial intelligence with attitude.

Butler developed this and subsequent articles into The Book of the Machines, which consisted of three chapters in his novel entitled Erewhon, published anonymously in 1872. The Erewhonian society envisioned by Butler was one that had long ago undergone a revolution in which most mechanical inventions had been destroyed, and the narrator of the story finds a book detailing the reasons for this revolution, which he translates for the reader.

Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by a kind of Darwinian selection. Although many dismissed this as a joke, Butler wrote in the preface to the second edition of Erewhon that he had no intention of satirizing Darwin’s evolutionary theory:

I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin; but I must own that I have myself to thank for the misconception, for I felt sure that my intention would be missed, but preferred not to weaken the chapters by explanation, and knew very well that Mr. Darwin’s theory would take no harm. The only question in my mind was how far I could afford to be misrepresented as laughing at that for which I have the most profound admiration.

As Alan Turing (1951) observed, “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. … At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control, in the way that is mentioned in Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon'”. Turing shared Butler’s view that the consequences of such greater-than-human intelligence will be profound, and conceivably dire for humanity as we know it.


December 24, 2013 (a Tuesday)

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by National Physical Laboratory Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by National Physical Laboratory Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

Today, Alan Turing, the British mathematician credited with development of the early computer, was finally given a posthumous pardon from Queen Elizabeth II 60 years after being convicted for and chemically castrated for being gay. Homosexuality was a crime in England at the time. You can read a summary of Turing’s arrest and trial here.

The pardon was announced by British justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who had made the request to the Queen. Touring “deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science,” Grayling wrote in his plea.

Turing pioneered the field of computer science, conceiving a “universal machine” that could be programmed to carry out different tasks years before the creation of the world’s fully functional electronic computer. His ideas matured into a fascination with artificial intelligence and the notion that machines would someday challenge the minds of man. When the war ended, Turing went to work programing the world’s early computers, drawing up — among other things — one of the first computer chess games.

Turing is perhaps best remembered as the architect of the effort to crack the Enigma code, the cipher used by Nazi Germany to secure its military communications. Turing’s groundbreaking work — combined with the effort of cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park near Oxford and the capture of several Nazi code books — gave the Allies the edge across half the globe, helping them defeat the Italians in the Mediterranean, beat back the Germans in Africa, and escape enemy submarines in the Atlantic.

Royal Pardon of Alan Turing signed by Queen Elizabeth II

Royal Pardon of Alan Turing signed by Queen Elizabeth II

Today, Touring’s contribution to Britain’s success during World War II and our modern computing environment is undisputed. Jean Barker, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said that “until Turing came along with his wonderful work, our ships were being sunk by the German submarines at [an incredible rate], I hate to say.” Barker admitted that without him, German U-boats would have surely crippled their naval fleet and the country, an island, would have starved. British prime minister David Cameron also recognized Touring’s significance: “His action saved countless lives. He also left a remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements, often being referred to as the ‘father of modern computing.’

For lawmaker Iain Stewart, one of many who campaigned for the pardon, the act helped right a massive wrong. “He helped preserve our liberty,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “We owed it to him in recognition of what he did for the country — and indeed the free world — that his name should be cleared.”

Others say the pardon doesn’t go far enough. British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “I pay tribute to the government for ensuring Alan Turing has a royal pardon at last but I do think it’s very wrong that other men convicted of exactly the same offense are not even being given an apology, let alone a royal pardon. We’re talking about at least 50,000 other men who were convicted of the same offense, of so-called gross indecency, which is simply a sexual act between men with consent.”

Glyn Hughes, the sculptor of the Alan Turing Memorial in Manchester, England said, “The problem is, of course, if there was a general pardon for men who had been prosecuted for homosexuality, many of them are still alive and they could get compensation.”

Ultimately, Touring’s pardon has come at a time when arguably the contributions of LGBT people can no longer go unrecognized.