Friday, December 28, 2012

A Short Play on Alan Turing

The inspiration from this piece, which I post as a finale for the Turing Year events at Reykjavik University, comes from "Il Bivio di Alan" by Mario Cristiani, Chiara Bodei and Maria Rita Lagana, which was in turn inspired by the radio drama "Turing's Test" by Phil Collinge and Andy Lord. I thank Chiara Bodei for sharing their piece with me. The text below is not much more than a translation of "Il Bivio di Alan", which you can watch here (in the original Italian version). The version of the play below was acted at Reykjavik University on Thursday, 29 March 2012.

Alan M. Turing: The Man and the Scientist

This dialogue is set in a simply furnished bedroom. A man, Alan Turing, is lying on the bed motionless. On the side table lies a half-eaten red apple. A desktop computer suddenly materializes out of thin air  on a desk next to the bedroom's window. The computer screen lights up, the machine boots up and produces a jingle similar to the Window's one .

Computer: Start-up completed. Time reset. Welcome everyone. Today is the 7th of June 1954. The man who lies on the bed next to me is Alan Mathison Turing. He just committed suicide by eating an apple poisoned with cyanide, just like Snow White in his favourite fairy tale.

Many of you probably won't know who Alan Turing was, but you all use computers like me without knowing that we are children of his genius. His code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during World War II was instrumental in deciphering the Enigma code used by the Nazi Navy, and definitely shortened the war. Alan Turing is also considered by many to be the father of Artificial Intelligence. He realized very early on that computing machines could be used to solve symbolic manipulation problems, such as playing checkers and chess, and solving jigsaw puzzles. This realization led him to ask a fundamental philosophical and scientific question: "When can a computing machine be said to be intelligent?" To answer this question, Turing proposed the Turing Test, which was based on the idea that a computer could be said to exhibit intelligence if a human interrogator could not distinguish it from a human being. HAL 9000, the computer in 2001 Space Odyssey supposedly passed the Turing test. To this day, I am not aware of any of my fellow machines that can do so. However, in 2012, often humans are tested using CAPTCHAs, which are reverse forms of the Turing Test in which humans try to convince a computer that they are indeed humans!

One would expect that,  during his life, Turing would have been celebrated for all these monumental achievements. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Turing's life was a sad one. He was a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a crime in the UK, he was convicted of gross indecency and was given a choice between imprisonment or chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections. He chose the latter and, on this day, he committed suicide.

Computer: Alan, Alan, wake up! Can you hear me?

Turing: Who....what are you?

Computer: I am the product of your imagination. I am your machine.

Turing (as if talking to himself): I did not know that poison had this effect.

Computer: This has nothing to do with poison. I am the incarnation of your Universal Turing Machine, of the programmable computer you dreamt up in 1936 while solving a problem in mathematical logic. Since then, it was only a matter of time before someone built me based on your detailed plans. You could have done so yourself, had you not stopped dreaming.

Turing: I did not want to stop, but they turned my life into a nightmare. They came to ask for my help when my nation needed me to understand encrypted messages exchanged by the Nazi forces, but then I became a liability because of my homosexuality.

In all honesty, I loved to work at Bletchey Park and to develop algorithms for code breaking, to discover meaning where there seemed to be none, to develop machines that could help us analyze increasingly more sophisticated encrypted messages. It was like a game, it was like testing oneself by running a marathon in 2 hours and 46 minutes. I am still proud of that time.

Then, the same people who enlisted my help forced me to act against my own self. But why am I saying this to you? You do not think!

Computer: Are you sure? After all, you are the one who argued that machine intelligence might be possible and invented the Turing Test! Didn't you suggest that a machine be built to emulate the thinking process of a child and that it be trained to develop into a machine that could think like an adult human being?

Turing: Yes, I did. The times were not ripe though. Just as they were not ripe for my active homosexuality. The authorities were afraid that I could leak secrets to handsome Russian spies, I guess. (Laughs bitterly.)

Turing the scientist was of help to them: they treated that one well during the war and honoured him with an OBE. However, Turing the man was indecent, immoral and even dangerous for national security.

Computer: But, the man and the scientist are one! They should have seen what your worth to humanity had been.

Turing: My worth.... Do you know how much I am worth? A shirt, five fish knives, a pair of trousers, three pairs of shoes, a compass, an electric shaver and an open bottle of sherry. This is what I am worth!

Computer: What is that?

Turing: This is what my boyfriend took from my apartment. This is the list of things I denounced to the police as stolen goods. I was in love with him. I do not think that you can understand.

Computer: Perhaps not. What happened afterwards?

Turing: I admitted my homosexuality and told them that there was nothing wrong with it, that one day homosexuality will not be a crime any more.

They offered me a choice: imprisonment or a "cure" via injections with female hormones.

Computer: I know that you chose the latter.

Turing: Yes, and look at what I have become. I have started growing breasts, I have the voice of a female actress and my mind has gone with my body. Do you know how it feels not to be able to recognize yourself any more? This is what remains of Alan Turing: a broken mind in a broken body --- the body of a loser.

Computer: You are wrong. This is not what will remain of you. So many ideas and technological advances converged to create a modern computer like me that it is foolhardy to give one person the credit for inventing it. But the fact remains that everyone who, in the year 2012, taps at a keyboard, sending an email, or opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of your Universal Turing Machine.

You will be remembered for your scientific legacy, which will have a far greater impact than, perhaps, even a visionary like you could have ever imagined.

Turing: This will not help me now that I am dead.

Computer: May I ask you why someone like you, who could run a marathon and endure the ensuing pain, ended up committing suicide?

Turing (after a long pause): Perhaps so that the memory of Turing the man could live forever like the one of Turing the scientist. Perhaps, for once and unexpectedly, logic failed me.

The lights slowly fade and the room darkens.

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