Friday 27 December 2013

Turing Test

I mentioned Chuck Yeager in passing while giving tribs to Jeana "No Relation" Yeager.  Before he broke the sound barrier he'd been a fighter pilot in WWII.  I think we might now follow the Russians and start calling the catastrophic early 1940s The Great Patriotic War Великая Отечественная войнаas as we move relentlessly to simplify history into black and white.  After being given orders to shoot-up anything that moved, Yeager whispered to a neighbouring pilot "If we are going to do things like this, we sure as hell better make sure we are on the winning side".  Amen to that.  Dreadful things happen during wars and the evil in the tale is never limited to the Other (losing) Side.

Alan Turing was given a retrospective pardon on Christmas Eve.  He broke the law just over 60 years ago and was given a particularly repellent punishment .  Having been convicted of  'gross indecency' (as The Man called normal homosexual behaviour back then), he opted for 'chemical castration' by being pumped full of a synthetic estrogen rather than being banged up in chokey like a normal con. Having lost his libido and gained a pair of breasts, Turing engineered himself a fairy tale death a couple of years later by consuming a poisoned apple.  The specificity of the punishment reminds me of stories I've been told about bizarrely detailed punishments meted out on children in Irish secondary schools in the 1980s.  One colleague of mine spoke of a classmate being compelled to sit in an open Georgian window in such a way that, when the teacher shut down the sash, it made contact with all the little perp's vertebrae as it came down.  How could a normal person set that up, in all its precision?

The Turing Test was one of Turing's several Great Ideas.  If we cannot distinguish the responses of a computer from those of a human being, then the TT claims that artificial intelligence AI can be considered to have occurred or been achieved.

Shabby and psychotic as the punishment of Turing was, there's something not quite right about his exoneration this week.  It's an easy option that makes most of us feel good about ourselves.  One of the issues that made me queasy was the fact that "we" had committed this grossly indecent act on a man who had been so useful to "us" in The Great Patriotic War.  By exonerating him in 2013 we are condemning our own grandparents for being who they were at that time.  It is not conceivable that we are better or more ethical or less cruel than people 60 years ago - evolution just doesn't happen that quickly. Getting up a petition for righting the wrong doled out to Turing is about as difficult as awarding another honorary degree to Jocelyn Bell-Burnell or Barbara McClintock.  The first petition was rebuffed by the then Minister of State for Justice Lord McNally: "However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times".  I think I agree with that position.  It takes rather more courage than the current shower of politicians possess to refuse such a petition because, however worthy its aims, it is conducive of hypocrisy and smugness. Whatever next? A petition to undead innumerate homosexuals who went up the chimney in 1940s concentration camps?

So here's another Turing Test that we can all, with advantage, use more often.  Before you condemn someone in another place, another time, another set of particular and peculiar circumstances, ask yourself how you would have behaved if you had been there, then.  We can't all come out shiny-white if such a spotlight is turned upon us.  After that, we can turn the spotlight on the invisible unconsidered certainties that we hold today but which will look crude and cruel to our grandchildren.  Now that's difficult; that's a challenge worthy of our attention.

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