Bruce Sterling on Alan Turing, gender, AI, and art criticism

Bruce Sterling gave a speech at the North American Summer School in Logic, Language, and Information (NASSLLI) on the eve of the Alan Turing Centenary, and delivered a provocative, witty and important talk on the Turing Test, gender and machine intelligence, Turing's life and death, and art criticism.

If you study his biography, the emotional vacuum in the guy’s life was quite frightening. His parents are absent on another continent, he’s in boarding schools, in academia, in the intelligence services, in the closet of the mid-20th-century gay life. Although Turing was a bright, physically strong guy capable of tremendous hard work, he never got much credit for his efforts during his lifetime.

How strange was Alan Turing? Was Alan Turing a weird, scary guy? Let’s try a thought experiment, because I’m a science fiction writer and we’re into those counterfactual approaches.

So let’s just suppose that Alan Turing is just the same personally: he’s a mathematician, an early computer scientist, a metaphysician, a war hero — but he’s German. He’s not British. Instead of being the Bletchley Park code breaker, he’s the German code maker. He’s Alan Turingstein, and he realizes the Enigma Machine has a flaw. So, he imagines, designs and builds a digital communication code system for the Nazis. He defeats the British code breakers. In fact, he’s so brilliant that he breaks some of the British codes instead. Therefore, the second World War lasts until the Americans drop their nuclear bomb on Europe.

I think you’ll agree this counter-history is plausible, because so many of Turing’s science problems were German — the famous “ending problem” of computability was German. The Goedel incompleteness theorem was German, or at least Austrian. The world’s first functional Turing-complete computer, the Konrad Zuse Z3, was operational in May 1941 and was supported by the Nazi government.

So then imagine Alan Turingstein, mathematics genius, computer pioneer, and Nazi code expert. After the war, he messes around in the German electronics industry in some inconclusive way, and then he commits suicide in some obscure morals scandal. What would we think of Alan Turingstein today, on his centenary? I doubt we’d be celebrating him, and secretly telling ourselves that we’re just like him.

Turing Centenary Speech (New Aesthetic)Turing Centenary Speech (New Aesthetic)

(Image: Tsar Bomba mushroom cloud, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from andyz's photostream)


    1. Maybe. Several top figures were gay, including Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the “milita” thugs of the Nazi party. He was famous for his harem of  pretty young boys. He was kept around for a long time, at least until there was a power struggle between the SA and I think the SS, though it may have been the intelligence wing of the army (can’t remember its name). You can read about this in In the Garden of Beasts.

    1.  Umm, nope. Go read the whole thing. The point is that the narrative of Alan Turing as the tragic hero of the computer age also tragically undersells all the other weird folk that have been sidelined by the rather selective forces of history, those that continue to be sidelined, and that we still don’t really acknowledge the degree to which Turing being queer influenced his work. Amongst other things. Sterling is hard to keep up with, but you clearly aren’t well acquainted if you can imagine him being the slightest bit homophobic.

    2. He’s not. His essay has a big dash of “we don’t appreciate the misunderstood genius”—that’s Turing. Then the slowly moves into thinking about how art criticism,  the judgement of art, speaks to identifying artificial intelligence. Throughout there’s an incoherent thread on gender.

      The essay’s taking on some interesting territory, but it’s really only interesting because Sterling said it, much as he claims about Eno (some work is only appreciated/valid as art because of who did it). A more interesting essay might touch on prior work in this area, like Kant’s Critique of Judgement or Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” or, to get some point happening in the gender area, Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”

      There’s also a lot of work being done on computer generated poetry/literature that addresses Sterling’s issues. That issue has, in fact, been beaten to death in some rather tedious ways that have yet to move beyond the claims and discussions being made between WW1 and WW2.

      1. I wanted to give a name this morning, but couldn’t. It just came to me: Katherine Hayles is one of the people I accused in my morning grumpiness of “beating to death” the questions that arise when considering AI, aesthetics, and literary production.

  1. I have to disagree, and the historical example is Werner Heisenberg. While he didn’t commit suicide, he did continue to work for Nazi Germany on the problem of creating an atomic bomb.

    Turning was not just a code-breaker.  His contributions to computability theory surely make him the as much a pioneer in mathematics and computer science as Heisenberg was in physics.

  2. I don’t get the point of the thought experiment at all.  Are we trying to prove that Nazis aren’t all that popular?  Because I think that one was pretty much proved in the ’40’s.

  3. “Well, the universe isn’t made of math, because Turing ran into the Goedel incompleteness theorem. This led him to the invention of the conceptual Turing machine.”
       -With zingers like this, Sterling should leave the metaphysics to the metaphysicians.

       Also, his whole Alan Turingstein thought experiment is off base as well. Sterling makes the mistake of conflating being German between 1930 and 1945 with being a Nazi. If Turing was German, being homosexual, I suspect he wouldn’t have gotten along all that well with the Nazis, in the same way that Einstein and Noether didn’t get along all that well with the Nazis for being a Jew and a woman respectively.
         There was another brilliant (and gay) philosopher and logician of Turing’s time, who’s still celebrated in Anglo-land despite being German. Ludwig Wittgenstein actually served in WWI, (and even beat up little kids for not being able to learn calculus) yet he is never characterized as being “spooky, creepy villain, a weird eccentric with ragged fingernails and pants held up with twine.” Wittgenstein is presented as a tortured genius not “a scary fringe character”, and I don’t see any reason why Turing wouldn’t have had a similar portrayal had he been German.
        Like a whole bunch of other incredibly talented German intellectuals, Turing would not have been allowed to participate in the Nazi war effort (and probably would have been a victim of serious persecution or would have fled the country even before he’d have a chance to publish On Computable Numbers in ’36. Sure if Turing was a heterosexual with an affinity for armbands, we wouldn’t celebrate his life, but he wasn’t, and wouldn’t have been if he was merely born in Germany instead of Britain. 

    1.  I think he’s saying that at the time, Turing was seen as a “scary fringe character” to the extent that he could be locked up and medicated against his will until he took his own life.
      It’s not enough to say that we wouldn’t have done that to him today, you have to imagine someone whose personal life viscerally offends you and then ask if anything they do professionally could earn your respect.

      1. But the trouble with counterfactuals is that (almost) anything goes. Sterling’s ‘uncelebrated’ hypothetical conclusion is only because he’s arranged things that way by having the USA bomb Europe. It’s arguably just as likely that the USA would have made ‘an accommodation’ with victorious Nazis – the Man in the High Castle P K Dick schtick – and we’re back to celebrating ‘Turingstein’ again. Choose your counterfactuals to fit the conclusion you desire.

  4. Remember where we got Wernher von Braun?:  Operation Paperclip

    So what would happened to Alan Turingstein if the Americans took an interest in him and he was spirited off to work in the nascent NSA? 

    1.  The Americans only took in scientists are THEIR terms.  I doubt they would have been interested in someone who was openly gay.  Einstein had a hard enough time as it was…

      1.  They looked the other way for war criminals when it suited them, at least initially.  Not sure gay would have stopped them.

  5. I don’t think this analogy is really fair, because it assumes that “Alan Turing is just the same personally” and that the only difference is an accident of birth, but it also assumes the alt-universe Alan Turingstein would’ve been happy to work for the Nazi government, something that was not actually true of all German (non-Jewish) scientists. Can we really assume that part of who he was “personally” was a reflexive patriot who would be happy to do code-breaking work for his government regardless of his government’s policies? As another analogy, imagine if Alan Turing was the same person, but the British government in the 1940’s was a fascist regime subjecting Jews to the same sort of treatment as Germany did in reality, fighting an alt-universe Germany whose government and policies were closer to those of real-life Britain. Would you just assume the Turing of this universe would still be happy to work on code-breaking to help Britain win the war? It seems to me to be an unfair maligning of Turing to assume that his own moral code played no role in his decision to help Britain, and that therefore our remembering him as a hero is just a matter of him getting lucky by happening to have been born in a country that was on the right side of WWII. 

    1. … happening to have been born in a country that was on the right side of WWII

      You mean winning side, right? History, written, y’know.

        1. I’d not be averse to that myself, but if they’d won then we might have been more circumspect in publicly voicing such assessments.

          Or we’d be dead of course.

          1. I guess I believe morality is sufficiently objective to say that even if “we” were national socialists believing the Nazis to have been right, we’d still be morally wrong in thinking so. And I think in the long term sane morality tends to win out over insane morality, regardless of who wins wars…outside of a minority of ultra-conservative idiots I doubt many people in the world today would say the U.S. was on the right side of the American Indian Wars, for example.

        2. Agreed, but the point can be easily made that there really were no good guys in WWII, going back to the Versailles Treaty.  It’s just a matter of tallying who was less horrible/stupid.

          Then thinking about how a Republican led Congress rejected (surprise surprise) Wilson’s entry plan for the League Of Nations, I guess the real bad guys in WWII were the politicians from all sides.  So what else is new, right?

          But definitely chalk one up for the USA with the bipartisan Marshall Plan, a spectacularly wise move.

          1. I’m still going to go with the side that deliberately herded more than ten million people into death camps being the bad guys.

          2. Absolutely, I did not refute that.  But that doesn’t mean one can ignore events such as the firebombing of Dresden.

  6. I’m not sure that people are getting the point of the thought experiment.  It seems to me that what Sterling is saying is that defeating the Nazis, Turing’s heroic moment, was the least interesting thing about him. . . but it’s the kind of thing we focus on because it fits a certain model of normalcy.  Turing proves that the halting problem is unsolvable?  So what.  He fought Nazis?  NOW we can appreciate him.

    His genius would have been the same even if he never lifted a finger to stop the Nazis.

    1. Except it wouldn’t have been the same. It would have been a slightly different genius that “we” wouldn’t be willing to accept because “we” don’t find it valuable enough to our society. IMO, the best part of the speech comes a few paragraphs after where Cory cut it off…
      “We’re okay with certain people who ‘think different’ to the extent of buying Apple iPads. We’re rather hostile toward people who ‘think so very differently’ that their work will make no sense for thirty years — if ever. We’ll test them, and see if we can find some way to get them to generate wealth for us, but we’re not considerate of them as unusual, troubled entities wandering sideways through a world they never made.”

      I wish people would click through to read the whole thing, because it’s really actually very good in its entirety.

    2. Then why does Sterling say that it was mere “luck” that Turing didn’t end up aiding a fascist anti-semitic regime (which involves a lot of uncharitable implicit assumptions about how a Turing who was “just the same personally” would have behaved if such a government was in power in his native land, as I argued in the comment above), and suggest that Turing is a pitiful figure, such that others like him need our help to stop being so “isolated”, “eccentric” and “cooped-up”? Read this paragraph again:

      Now, Turing had the good luck not to be born German, but he also had the bad luck of being a consistently eccentric, shadowy, obscure, cooped-up and closeted guy. Furthermore, I believe our world has many such people right now — few so brilliant as him, but many as isolated as him. Rather than apologizing to Alan Turing after his death, I’d be happier if we had some working way to reach out to other Alan Turings, ways to find people like him and to convince them to put down the poisoned apple and find good, sensible reasons to cheer the hell up and enjoy life.

  7. Nope, it probably would have.  Being gay was seen in the U.S. as leading to communistic or socialistic beliefs — as per the lavender scare — and the crackdown on hard left politics in the physics community was already getting underway before the end of the second world war.

    (Edit: that was supposed to be in reply to Rhyolite. Sorry!)

    1. It’s possible your correct.  However, what actually would happen would depend on matters like 1) how useful Turingstein was perceived to be, 2) how much of his background would actually have been known to intelligence agencies in 1945 and 3) how open he actually was. 

      Remember that the UK government either didn’t find out about Turning until 1952 or, at the very least, looked the other way until then.  I think it is reasonable to assume that the allies would have know less about an Alan Turinstein’s background in 1945 than they did the real Alan Turing.

      Operation Paperclip also actively falsified the backgrounds of many of its recruits so they could get security clearances.  While it is possible they might have rejected an Alan Turingstein out of hand, it seems well within the bounds of reasonable speculation to consider the alternative where he would have been recruited.

      By the way,  cool pseudonym

  8. As part of Sterling’s attempt to show that Turing was “consistently eccentric, shadowy, obscure, cooped-up and closeted guy”, he says the following:

    “However, that’s by no means what Turing actually says in his original paper on the subject. The real Turing imitation game is not about that process at all. It’s about an entirely different process of gender politics and transvestism. It’s about a machine imitating a woman.”

    Sterling concludes, “If you go check out the many efforts at Turing Tests in the years since, you don’t see many machines strenuously pretending to be girls — Alan is sailing that queer sea of thought pretty much alone.” But I think Sterling is being way too literal here. If you read the original paper, Turing first presents a scenario where you have two people “a man (A), a woman (B)”, both trying to convince an interrogator (C) that they are woman. It seems to me that this example is just brought up to illustrate the idea of someone trying to convince an interrogator that they are something they are not, in a conventional scenario involving two humans (and gender is one of the more obvious ways in which humans can differ). Turing then says:

    We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?

    I feel fairly certain that Turing was merely making an analogy to the original imitation game, in effect saying “what if the same sort of game was played, except in this case instead of A being a man falsely pretending to be a woman, A is a machine falsely pretending to be a human?” (aren’t we all familiar with the looseness of how analogical phrases like “now imagine the same thing, except…” are used in everyday speech?) I don’t think the intention was that it was meant to be exactly the same game, including the fact that the machine was trying to convince the interrogator it was a woman. Just look at the questions Turing imagines asking A, which have nothing to do with gender and instead have to do with tasks we conventionally imagine humans being better at than machines or vice versa, like writing sonnets and quickly figuring out winning chess moves. Likewise notice where Turing talks about covering the machine with realistic artificial skin, and says even supposing this invention available we should feel there was little point in trying to make a “thinking machine” more human by dressing it up in such artificial flesh–he says “more human” (indicating that the machine is trying to trick the interrogator into thinking it’s a human), not “more like a woman”. So, I think a major part of Sterling’s case for Turing’s “weirdness” is just based on poor reading comprehension.

    Also, I question the whole premise that Turing was “closeted” and repressed, and that this had something to do with why his peers often regarded him as weird/eccentric or socially isolated (lots of scientific and mathematical geniuses have some degree of Asperger’s-like-traits, including much less desire for socializing than the average person–would Sterling consider Einstein to be sad and pathetic because he said “I am truly a ‘lone traveler’ and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude”?) From what I read he was actually quite open about his sexuality, and this was part of why he wasn’t careful about not giving himself away to the police when he called them to investigate a theft by a lover of his. For example, this Washington Post story says:

    From early in his adolescence, Turing understood that he was gay and saw nothing wrong with it. If the society in which he lived criminalized homosexuality, he believed the fault lay with the society, not with the men and women it vilified. He made little effort to disguise or efface his desire for other men, and when, in the early 1950s, he embarked on a businesslike affair with a youth in Manchester, his sense of how the world should be clashed with how it was.

    Sterling’s suggestion that we need “ways to find people like him and to convince them to put down the poisoned apple and find good, sensible reasons to cheer the hell up and enjoy life” also seems rather tone-deaf, assuming that his relative social isolation (and it was only relative, he certainly wasn’t friendless) and eccentricity were indications that his entire life was a basically unhappy one that needed curing (many people with Asperger’s-like personalities are perfectly happy with their low degree of socializing, there’s no need to stigmatize this), as opposed to the more obvious explanation that he became depressed after being forced to take hormone treatments by the government (a form of chemical castration which left him impotent, and may well have altered the chemistry of his brain in a way that induced depression).

    1. The recent article by Prof Jack Copeland casts reasonable doubt on our image of Turing as an unhappy and tragic martyr. While clearly the treatment of homosexuals in that era was appalling,and clearly Turing was a victim of it, he appeared to bear it well and even view it with amusement. Turing’s own words…

      ‘”Whilst in custody with the other criminals, I had a very agreeable sense of irresponsibility, rather like being back at school.” What is more, Turing had tolerated the year-long hormone treatment and the terms of his probation (“my shining virtue was terrific”) with amused fortitude.’

      Many friends and acquaintances testified to his cheerful frame of mind. Whatever the cause of his death, his ending was a tragedy simply because of his greatness, but if it wasn’t due to suicide and was the result of his home experiments using cyanide then that may not fit the mythology of the genius sacrificed to a bigoted society.

      Whatever the truth, we’ve all benefited from his genius.

      1. I was also going to point out that it was never verified that he did commit suicide. If I have understood correctly the apple, for instance, was never checked for cyanide, it was just assumed. It could equally well have been an accident, like his mother insisted it was. Apparently an accident is less… something… than suicide.

      2. that may not fit the mythology of the genius sacrificed to a bigoted society.

        I’m going to stick with the genius/sacrificed/bigoted narrative unless somebody also discovers that he was never arrested or forcibly chemically neutered.

    1. Yeah… Eliza, anyone?  Although Eliza didn’t really have any gender, other than the name, many similar type of programs seems to have either a female name or give a female type of image. 
      The default (I think) LPMUD came with it’s own Eliza NPC. Hours of fun with people trying to talk to her… I’m sure there were lots of players who didn’t realize she wasn’t a real person.

  9. whatever people might think about the author’s statements directly about Turing, his commentary on the focus on Artificial Intelligence is absolutely fascinating. I particularly liked his comment that we aren’t creating machines that are feeling emotions, or aren’t even expecting a possible outcome where they might want to end their existence. (ok, yeah Douglas Adams suggested some of this in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but he’s not currently developing machine learning algorithms).

    Maybe those 16000 computers learned to identify pictures of cats not by accident but rather because they were trying to make their dull life more interesting :P

    1.  > ok, yeah Douglas Adams suggested some of this in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but he’s not currently developing machine learning algorithms

      Not anymore, mostly because he’s dead. I haven’t played the various games he wrote (aside from a little bit of the Hitchhiker’s Guide text adventure), but I understand the Starship Titanic game he was involved with had some kind of natural language conversation thing. Is this accurate? And, was Adams involved in designing or programming that part?

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