The Imitation Game

(copied from Facebook post, 22 Dec 2014)

We caught up with THE IMITATION GAME yesterday, the film about Alan Turing, staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. Turing was the British mathematician who famously cracked the Nazi “Enigma” code during World War II, and who in effect built the first ‘computer’, and who was later convicted of gross indecency for his homosexuality, and who committed suicide at age 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

The film is very good, in a standard Hollywood way; it’s exceptional because Turing’s life and achievement were exceptional, though as a drama you can’t help but suspect aspects of the story are exaggerated for dramatic effect: the conflict between Turing and his coworkers, the persistent skepticism of his superiors; the pseudo-romance with one of his co-workers. In particular, as I’ve read in some of the reviews, there was no single “ah-ha” moment in which Turing has a great insight based on some casual remark in the pub. It makes for good drama, but as always with scientific endeavors, accomplishments like this are usually the result of team efforts, not the singular momentary brilliance of a particular person.

Yet the film also addresses the moral quandary that follows the inevitable success of Turing’s machine. Once they’ve learned how to decode the Nazi signals, they must use that knowledge sparingly, or risk the Nazi’s realization that their code has been broken. And so they apply mathematical analysis, to determine which signals to react on (to save convoys, e.g.), and which to ignore (despite the inevitable losing of such convoys), in order to maximize the eventual winning of the war while minimizing losses. It’s a dramatic example of cold-blooded mathematical analysis that sacrifices some for the eventual greater good. And it worked.

Despite the familiar Hollywood dramatic effects, there are some great moments in this film, especially near the end of the framing interview, in which Turing is telling his secret life to the police prosecutor who is investigating his indecency charge. He tells his story about what he did during the war, still a state secret at that time, and he explains his idea of the ‘imitation game’, what we now call the ‘Turing test’ — how do you tell if the answers to any of your questions are coming from a human, or a machine? Is he himself, he asks rhetorically, a man, a machine, a war hero, or a criminal? Also quite affecting are flashbacks to the youthful Turing, and his friendship/attachment to another boy. There is a final scene in this sequence in which the young Turing reacts to news about what has happened to his friend — remarkable for the young actor’s performance, and the ability of the actor and the director to hold the scene for so long.

The end of the story is that Britain in the early ’50s convicted Turing of indecency for having committed homosexual acts, and gave him the choice of prison or ‘hormone therapy’. He chose the latter, but after a couple years of it, committed suicide.

Titles at the end of the film indicate that Turing’s efforts cut the war short by 2 years and saved 14 million lives.

Society has evolved; a year ago Queen Elizabeth issued a retroactive pardon of Turing (though not of the thousands of other homosexuals similarly convicted over the previous century). Yet to do this day, there are still “Christians”, especially in America, who publicly advocate the execution of homosexuals.

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