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The Imitation Game

I’ve been known to get emotional at the movies, but it’s been since Alien that I’ve been as broken down emotionally as I was today by The Imitation Game.

Alan Turing not only made fundamental contributions to the mathematical foundations of modern computing, he also formulated an inspirational goal for machine intelligence. Known as the Turing Test, it proposes that if a human communicating through a neutral interface (such as a teletype) can’t distinguish the responses of a human from those of a machine, then the intelligence of the machine must be considered to be comparable to a human’s.

My father, Karl Balke, was one of the men that plowed the field cleared by Turing and others. As he described the think-tank at Los Alamos, the researchers brought every intellectual discipline to bear on the problem of transforming logic gates (capable only of representing “on” and “off” with their output) into systems that could perform complex computations. Their research was not limited to machine design. Languages had to be developed that would allow human goals to be expressed as programs that the machines could execute.

In the early stages of language development, competing proposals shifted the burden of intelligibility between human and machine. The programming languages that we have today reflect the conclusion of that research: most computer programs are simply algorithms for transforming data. The machine has absolutely no comprehension of the purpose of the program, and so cannot adapt the program when changes in social or economic conditions undermine the assumptions that held at the time of its writing. It is left to the “maintenance” programmer to accomplish that adaptation. (Today, most in the field recognize that maintenance is far more difficult than writing the original program, mostly because very few organizations document the original assumptions.)

I believe that my father’s intellectual struggle left him deeply sensitive to the human implications of computing. As I child, I grew up listening to case studies of business operations that came to a grinding halt because the forms generated by the computers were re-organized to suit the capabilities of relatively primitive print drivers, rather than maintaining the layout familiar to the employees. People just couldn’t find the information that they needed. Worse were the stories of the destruction of sophisticated planning systems implemented by human methods. When automation was mandated, the manual procedures were simply too difficult to describe using the programming languages of the day. The only path to automation was to discard the manual methods, which could cripple production.

Turing confronted this contradiction in the ultimate degree after building a machine to break the Nazi’s method for secret communications, known as “Enigma.” If the achievement was to have sustained utility, the Allies’ knowledge of Axis military planning had to be limited: otherwise the Nazis would realize that Enigma had been defeated, and develop a better encryption method. As a consequence, most Allied warriors and civilians facing Nazi assault did so without benefit of the intelligence known to Turing and his team.

While the point is not made obvious, the movie illuminates the personal history that conditioned Turing for his accomplishments. Isolated psychologically from his peers – both by the social stigma of his homosexuality and by what today might be diagnosed as autism or Asperger’s syndrome – Turing was confronted from an early age by the question of what it meant to be human. Was it only the degree of his intelligence that distinguished him from his peers? Or was his intelligence tied to deviant – if not monstrous – behavior? My belief is that these questions were critical motivations for Turing’s drive to understand and simulate intelligence.

That parallels the experience of my father, burdened by his own psychological demons, but also critically concerned that artificial intelligence answer to the authentic needs of the people it empowered. That belief led him to devote most of his life to creation of a universal graphical notation for representation of the operation of systems of:

  • arbitrary collections of people and machines,
  • following programs written in diverse languages.

That technology, now known as Diagrammatic Programming, was recognized by some as the only provably sufficient method for systems analysis. Unfortunately, by the time it was refined through application, the economics of the software industry had shifted to entertainment and the world-wide web. Engineering was often an after-thought: what was important was to get an application to the market, structured so that it held users captive to future improvements. Raw energy and the volume of code generated became the industry’s management metrics.

The personality traits that allowed Turing to build his thinking machines ultimately cost him the opportunity to explore their application. He was exposed as a “deviant” and drummed out of academia. Accepting a course of chemical castration that would allow him to continue his work privately, he committed suicide after a year, perhaps because he discovered that the side-effects made work impossible.

My father was afflicted by childhood polio, and has been isolated for years from his peer group by degenerative neuropathy in his legs.

While my empathy for both of these brilliant men was a trigger for the sadness that overwhelmed me as the final credits rolled, the stories touch a deeper chord. Both were denied the just fruits of their labor by preconceived notions of what it means to be human: Turing because he thought and behaved differently, my father because he attempted the difficult task of breaking down the tribal barriers defined by the languages that separate us.

So what lesson am I to draw from that, as I struggle to prove the truth of the power that comes from a surrender to the purposes of divine love? Is social rejection inevitable when we surrender what others consider to be “humanity”?

Is that not what condemned Jesus of Nazareth? His renunciation of violence and self-seeking? His refusal to fear death?

One thought on “The Imitation Game

  1. Pingback: The Modern Tower of Babel | everdeepening

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