June 23, 2012

Computers are so gay....




Sometimes I waste time online, okay most of the time. But sometimes I learn true scary important stuff. Here's what I learned this weekend....

Today would have been the hundred birthday of Alan Turing, someone whose name I have heard but who I knew nothing about. He was considered the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

During the first world war Turing worked for the British Government Code and Cypher School, and later he worked at Manchester University. He published many papers on mathematical biology and created one of the first stored-memory computers. He famously assisted in breaking the Nazi code Enigma. The "Turing Machine" formalized the concepts of algorithm and computation and made way for the modern computer. Okay that is officially as geeky technical as I get...

Here is the terrifying history lesson for me... Turing's homosexuality resulted in criminal prosecution in 1952, when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, and rather than prison he accepted treatment with female hormones (chemical castration) as his sentence. Ugh.


His conviction also led to the removal of his security clearance, which effectively ended his career. There is also evidence he was hounded because he was a gay man with top secret access and was therefore a security risk.

Turing is credited with saving millions of lives as a codebreaker, and I read that his group's work is believe to have shortened the war by two to four years. And yet he has largely been written out of history. Turing died of assumed suicide in 1954, at the age of 41.

In  2009, following an internet campaign, Prime Minister Brown official apologized on behalf of the British government "for the appalling way he was treated."

Turing has gotten some press on this anniversary, including a week of features on the BBC, and even new debate about whether his death was really suicide. However that works out, it is great he is getting some renewed attention and discussion.

It sounds weird to say, but Happy Birthday Mr Turing!

And oh yeah, I gotta read some more history....