Today, the UK government formally offered Alan Turing a pardon. This pardon was delivered by the hand of the Queen Elizabeth II to restore the good name of Alan Turing.
There are just two seminal problems with this pardon. The first is that Alan Turing has been dead 60 years. The second is that he never should have needed “pardon” in the first place.
Each of you is intimately familiar with the work of Alan Turing, although you may not realize it yet.
In the turn of the 20th century, the mathematician David Hilbert proposed mathematics redirect itself to a task worthy of the Zeitgeist of those early years, aiming to spurn mathematical intuition at the alter of the positivists.
The primary aim of the program was to demonstrate that all of mathematics could effectively be replaced by a computer approach to proof and a set of well chosen axioms (without getting into the mostly now-worthless terminology of long forgotten philosophical movements, let’s just call them the “MASTER AXIOMS”). These were the practical aims – however, beneath the surface were other goals. The destruction of metaphysics, the removal of the “mathematics problem” to the positivist worldview, the death of Platonic reasoning, and the emergence of a permanent state of pure-empiricism.
The real tangible quest of the movement was to demonstrate three things: that mathematics was (1) consistent, (2) complete, and (3) decidable.
The first (and in some respects final) blow against the Hilbert program was struck in 1931 with the publication of Uber formal unentscheidbare Satze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme (On formally undecidable propositions of Principia Mathematica and related systems) by Kurt Godel. In his paper, the young Godel brought havoc on the positivists and the Hilbert program, by demonstrating that axiom derived mathematics was both not-consistent and not complete.
However, after the Hilbert program came crashing down, there were remnants and the third element of the program remained unanswered.
It was Alan Turing who helped take down the final pillar of the Hilbert program. He did this by creating the hypothetical machine, known as the “Turing Machine”. A device that could return a true or false answer for any decidable statement, the Turing machine enabled Alan Turing in 1936 to demonstrate critically that all of mathematics is also not decidable. This laid to rest the rampant idealism that had seized mathematics while also helping to demonstrate, alongside the great work of the likes of Godel, Church, or Von Neumann, some of the barriers to which mathematics can be successfully employed.
And it is his machine through which each of you is intimately familiar with Alan Turing as you read this on your electronic devices. The Turing machine was the architectural great grandfather of what would become the modern day computer.
A code breaker in the second World War, Alan Turing was the unsung champion of the triumph of the Allies. Employing his earliest computational devices, he engaged in the immensely complex task of breaking the German enigma – the ingenious pre-computer method of sending coded messages. The information the Allies gained from these decoded messages was of such importance, without it most of the Alan Turing’s home country, the UK, would have been overrun by invading forces otherwise. But by Turing’s hand, the Allies frequently knew of German plans before even German infantry.
At the complete of the war, peace returned in a form to Europe. But not for Turing. No ceremonies or honors were waiting for him. No peace, either.
A homosexual, and the status quo that had carried his necessity now behind them, Alan Turing was prosecuted and convicted in 1952 for indecency and subjected to castration.
He killed himself in 1954.
The loss of Alan Turing was a tragedy. His final work was moving into the subject of complexity theory. Between his sentencing and the time of his suicide, Turing began answering questions in mathematical biology (some of the most complicated around). This path eventually leads towards the direction of genetic algorithms or non-linear systems. Consider that recent papers written between 2012-2013 have concluded that photosynthesis follows many of the same behaviors of quantum mechanics. Turing clearly had the prowess to answer this level of inquiry. How much further along would we be today if he had lived?
I do not know who has pushed to have Turing pardoned by the state. Then prime minister Gordon Brown did formally apologize for the plight of Turing in 2009. However, pardon is nonsense. Alan Turing needs no pardon – you pardon criminals as an act of forgiveness. But the sin rests squarely on the shoulders of the UK. If they really want to make amends they should denounce the original conviction, and drag the names of those that persecuted this titan of the mind through the mud, striking them of any honors.
Then on the nation’s behalf, they can beg the memory of Alan Turing for pardon.