Alan Turing in a society of machines

I am usually not at a loss for words (at least while writing). But what can one possibly write about that bird, that song; that tragedy, that ecstasy; that lamb, that lion; that beautiful genius called Alan Turing—that hasn’t already been written?

What can I add? Don’t forget what Iqbal said: ‘A particle in its place can be as powerful as the sun!’ So yes, perhaps I can! I remember a reverend saying that, “There is nothing in any tragedy, ancient or modern, nothing in poetry or history (with one exception), like the last hours of Socrates in Plato.” The pity is that unlike for Socrates and Christ, we have no account of Turing’s last moments before his murder. Perhaps, I can try and give my guess, my model of what might have happened…


He is lying on his bed. We can abstract away several things. Our purpose is to try and understand his feelings during his final moments, and also to explore his journey towards his final destination. So for example, we need not mention that on his desk lies a paper in which he has worked out an algorithm using a data structure invented by him, later on to be christened the stack. On the top is written the word “Unbury” and below that “Bury”, terms that sound so much more intriguing than ‘Pop’ and ‘Push’, their modern day counterparts. (For those who didn’t know, stack is a structure used in programming. You can picture it as a stack of plates, where each plate is some data item. As you can guess, the plate that is stacked last (on top), shall be used first, and vice versa)

We also need not mention that even as he is about to take the—natural, but also the so unnatural, the terribly sad and yet the happily liberating—step to oblivion, his mind for a moment drifts to the problem of generating factors of large numbers! His idea is that a piece of data should be encrypted by multiplying it with a very large number, so that it’s hard to decrypt. (This is a technique that is still used today).

Finally, we need not mention that he has a final look at his goldfish, flashing beautiful colors in its bowl. He notices its structure. He wonders if any attention would be paid to his paper in which he presented a model for the shape and form of organisms. (Little does he know that his paper on morphogenesis will become his most well-cited paper, and that he will end up becoming even more important to biologists than to computer scientists).

We need not have mentioned all the above. The great playwright Anton Chekhov said, “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” And he had a point obviously. But what if mentioning the gun in the model (the play) served some other purpose? Once the writer mentions the gun, the reader associates it with the gun-owner, and forms certain ideas about the owner’s personality, habits etc. We can think of other things as well. So is it really necessary for the gun to fire in the last act? What to abstract and what not to abstract? Is there a method?

That’s another debate; as we said, we are concerned with what Turing is really thinking. Perhaps, the following:

“If my mind is a machine, which it is, then what previous configurations (states) are leading it towards this final configuration where all things shall halt? Do I not have in my machine mind, an m-configuration (procedure) that can erase all previous configurations so that I could be ‘free’? But if everything is erased, what will become of me? My machine shall still be present. But I am a combination of the machine and the tape. The tape is as important as the machine. Interesting. Never thought of it like that. What one ends up doing becomes part of the “I”. ‘I’ is a combination of what I can do and what I do do. Hence, the tape cannot be erased without erasing me…

At this point, Turing laughed wistfully. After all, he of all people knew the problems with stretching a metaphor too far. Didn’t he write in his paper on intelligent machines that asking whether machines could be intelligent was a “meaningless question”? He just didn’t want to talk about problems all day long; hence all his creations. He remembered them all now. So life really does flash before your eyes, he thought! How odd. So in this case, cliché is a cliché itself, he thought and smiled at this piece of logic. He remembered the random number generator that he had made at Manchester. But the noise source, it turned out, was not properly random. He had to laugh at that one. Who would have thought? Of course, he didn’t know that he was the first person to have devised the technique for generating random numbers through external analog sources. He realized once again that despite his love for logic and mathematics, he also loved the physical aspects of life. He remembered the first marathon that he had run; the competitive hockey matches; the day he had cycled sixty kilometers to his school; the school where he had met the love of his life, who was so unfairly taken away from him by death. This painful memory made his focus shift to what the world called his ‘affliction’, his homosexuality, and the machine started again:

“If I am different from them, it is not my fault. This is what I was programmed to do. Then why did all this happen? My program does not function well with their programs perhaps? Yes, that must be it! So we were all concentrating on the wrong problem! The real question is not what one machine can or cannot do, but rather what is the result of the interaction of a multitude of machines! It is the interaction that is important! When many machines interact, they start writing on each other’s tapes, and it’s no longer clear what part is ours and what part is theirs. Interesting. They have brought about my halting. Our entire outlook on these problems has been limited….though not wrong. If we had focussed only on the interaction without asking what the individual machine does, then we might have been led in a very wrong direction…Interesting… 

Turing believes men are machines,

Machines do not feel,

Therefore, men have no feelings

 Anyway, it is all right. I did what I had to do. They did what they had to do. And no one can be blamed. Yet…”

And here Turing felt really extremely sad. Because he did not really believe that everything was all right. There were so many other things that he still wanted to do. Despite his humiliation and confinement, his mind was still rife with ideas. He believed in free-will of course. Only an irresponsible person didn’t. But….And the distressed man, the great man, the wronged man, contemplated his last thought: “Perhaps, freewill exists for the individual machine. But it surely does not exist in a society of machines! No more time for models now. Final configuration coming up”... And he picked up the hemlocked apple and drank from it! Halting, haltin, halti, halt, hal, ha, h . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  ………..

6 responses to “Alan Turing in a society of machines”

  1. Made me very emotional. Great post.

  2. Very moving. what a genius

    1. Yes, indeed. Thanks for visiting

  3. To wonder he was in his early 20s when he wrote the undecidability universal machine paper!

  4. Yes, my thoughts exactly

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