A Conversation — albeit one-sided — with Alan Turing

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Recently, I went to see The Imitation Game, the WW II drama that chronicles the story of British mathematician Alan Turing and how he led a team of cryptographers to crack a previously-thought-to-be indecipherable Nazi code. His contributions are said to have played a decisive role in shortening the war and saving hundreds of thousands of lives. To this day, he is considered by many as the ‘father of computer science’ and artificial intelligence. The movie also effectively depicts his isolation as a gay man struggling to navigate life in a decidedly closeted society. Ultimately, his secret life is exposed and is given a choice by the courts to either spend two years in prison or submit to chemical castration. He chooses castration and the cumulative effect of this inhuman “treatment” leaves him a physical, emotional shell. A year later, he takes his own life.  This was a hugely engrossing, but tragic story where you couldn’t help but feel great sadness for this troubled man. After the movie, I did a little research (if Wikipedia qualifies as “research”) on Turing and discovered that among other things, he was an atheist. That he did not believe in god was not much more than a footnote on his Wikipedia page. Yet, I was struck and saddened this gifted thinker, from whose mind and hands brought forth this technologically sophisticated piece of machinery, had some how made peace with the notion that an infinitely more marvelous machine — namely, himself — was brought forth by an act of sheer, random chance. Thus, this fanciful entry…

Professor Turing, it is clear after watching your story and reading about your life that you are one of the most remarkable thinkers of the 20th century.

I think about this marvelous machine you conceived and constructed. From your intelligence, you brought forth what was at the time, the most advanced technology known to man. The impact of your work is felt to this day.

In watching your story, I had another impression. Please tell me how close I land to the truth.

It was hard to miss the poor regard you exhibited toward those whose intellect you thought inferior to your own, which judging from the film, was just about everyone. I imagine you decided long ago there was no utility in trying to appear less than what you are.

Your great pride in your intelligence, and the disdain you displayed for the more meager gifts of others, infers, at least to a degree, you view your intellect not so much as a gift, but as a possession earned, or rightly deserved. I say this because if you believed your intellect to be a gift, something bestowed upon you, then you would be beholden to something (fate?) or someone (a creator). But there is no sense in watching your story you were beholden to anyone but yourself.

Now consider your machine for a moment. There is great intelligence evident throughout its design and function. There is no question to anyone, with even a cursory understanding of its construction, that behind its existence there is a brilliant mind. No one would suppose for a moment it came into existence on its own.

For the sake of illustration, I want to suggest a purely whimsical scenario where your machine somehow, magically, comes to life.

Imagine the conversation the two of you would have!

Now further imagine, if after a while, your machine becomes so imbued with its fine-tuned mechanics and precision that it begins to believe it owes its existence, not to you, but to itself.

What would your reaction be? I could envision you would laugh derisively and remind it that without you, the machine is nothing but a bunch of bolts, wires and steel: “How ludicrous that you would even for a moment begin to imagine yourself as your own creator! You are merely the invention, where I am the inventor. You exist only because I willed it. You owe me your very existence. How foolish, how utterly foolish of you to think otherwise!”

You understand an intelligent machine such as yours could only come from an even greater intelligence. No matter how marvelous your invention, I don’t imagine you think its intellect greater than your own.

Your machine was programmed to perform very specific tasks, tasks you yourself scripted. Unlike man, it does not have the ability on its own to teach itself new skills and start performing other tasks, such as forecasting the weather or composing poetry.

Intelligence, I think we can agree, comes from intelligence.

And yet, you are somehow at home with the belief this principle does not apply to you. You apparently came to believe your great mind came into existence through what, an accident, the natural evolution of some random, inexplicable beginning? Unlike that of your machine, whose capabilities are vastly inferior to your own, you believe yourself to be your own benefactor. You are beholden to no one. You are your own god.

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