Reasonable Words: “Not exactly a Lothario,” TLS on Alan Turing

The centenary of the mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turning is over (he was born in 1912). But I’m still catching up on TLS’s and encountered a nice review article in the 12/28 issue by Michael Saler, a UC Davis History prof. Synthesizes the story through comments on three books.

Well done lead:

Before the Second World War, computers wore clothes and did their work with ink-stained fingers. The term referred to human beings engaged in mathematical calculations, who were slow and at times erroneous. It was the war that introduced the first modern electronic computing machines. They were immensely faster and more accurate than their soon-to-be-redundant human counterparts, and facilitated the invention of nuclear weapons. The decades following the war have been dominated by these two technologies. It is tempting to think of them in apocalyptic terms: the bomb threatens to end human existence, and the artificial intelligence of computers threatens to challenge or even change human nature. Recent histories charting the intertwined origins of the nuclear age and the “digital universe” provoke the queasy feeling that our species is positioned precariously between atomic night and transhuman dawn. Ironically – and reassuringly – the principal instigators of this new era, such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann, showed themselves to be human, all too human, their fallibilities and resiliencies restoring a more grounded perspective about our future. The triumph of a Dr Strangelove or a Hal 9000 remains a possibility, but either scenario pales before the lived reality of their flesh-and-blood progenitors. As the following histories suggest, truth is often stranger than science fiction.

That’s so elegant, I’ll overlook the letdown in that last sentence.

One of the themes that spirals through the review is the primacy (or not) of the gay aspect of Turing’s life in his technical work. Hard to measure the strength of that influence (anything that was suppressed for so long risks getting over emphasized). Thinking of the Turing test in some way caught up in “passing” is suggestive, if not totally convincing. Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 8.55.17 PM

Also interesting to me is the parallel Saler makes between the world of computing and nuclear weapons, in specific, von Neumann’s embrace of the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine. Not a part of his story that gets much mention. Hard to argue with the thesis that computing and nuclear weapons are the two dominant technologies of the 20th century, though.


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