Monday, February 6, 2012

Alan Turing is “the Key Figure of Our Century,” Marvin Minsky

From the Turing Centenary: Alan Turing is “the Key Figure of Our Century,” Marvin Minsky
Days to Centenary: 146

On the one hand, pointing out yet again how important a role Alan Turing played in twentieth century affairs, and how large his legacy looms into the twenty-first, seems almost unnecessary now that we are in the midst of the Alan Turing Year.

He’s made it, the moment has arrived, the hoopla has begun.

On the other hand, the mere fact that it is the Alan Turing Year means that we run the risk that the celebration itself becomes the focus of our attention and that the man gets obscured in the glitz.

I don’t know how many times I have now seen a news item or a blog post about the fact that there is an Alan Turing postage stamp. I have nothing against the postage stamp — he certainly deserves it — but the repetition of this fact at the expense of anything else that might be said about him is a symptom of the fact that Turing may, if we are not careful, end up too much a symbol and too little an actual human being.

I don’t want to detract from any aspect of this year’s celebrations — anyone who has read this page before knows that I appreciate all of Turingdom, the official and the unofficial, whether on a great scale or on a small one, the institutional and the personal. But at this moment, for the reasons I just gave, I want to come back to the very real man and the real-world accomplishments he realized in his short life.

In The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing (1992), the first voice we hear (apart from an announcer briefly quoting Turing himself) is that of Marvin Minsky, who says:

Here’s a person who discovered the most important thing in logic and he invented the concept of the stored program computer and he did these wonderful things in biology and cryptology and started artificial intelligence and ran marathons and rode bicycles and had these terrible sexual problems, but I don’t know anything about this person… here’s the key figure of our century, but I don’t know him and I wish I did.

Marvin Minsky — who is a cognitive scientist working in artificial intelligence — is an intellectual giant. Just ask Isaac Asimov, who said of him that Minsky was one of only two people whom he, Asimov, would admit was more intelligent than he was (the other was Carl Sagan). When Minsky says someone is the key figure of the 20th century, that’s coming from someone who is himself one of its key figures.

So Minsky’s comment portrays Turing’s legacy in its appropriate scale, but at the same time it provokes the same reaction in us that Minsky is having himself: we want to know the man, the real guy.
Marvin Minsky

Unfortunately we can’t, not directly, but we can know him indirectly through portrayals and recollections, as in last years Channel 4 documentary, Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker. Unfortunately that movie isn’t yet available for many of us outside the UK. Even for those within the UK who’ve seen it, it may have left them wishing for more.

For people in either of those categories, The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing is conveniently available on YouTube. The first half is embedded below. Beneath the embed is a link to the second half.

So by all means, buy one of the limited-edition first day cover stamps with the unique postmark. I’d love one myself. But before you do, sit down and watch the documentary and remind yourself just what the celebration’s really all about.

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