David Glover-Aoki

2015 pages

The Imitation Game

I watched "The Imitation Game", a movie about Alan Turing's work at Bletchley Park during World War 2.

I chose not to see it during its theatrical release, having heard that it contained a number of inaccuracies regarding Turing who, more than anyone else I know of, I would describe as a personal hero.

Now having seen it, here are my thoughts.

There are a number of outright factual inaccuracies during the movie. Chamberlain was prime minister in 1939, not Churchill. Joan Clarke was hired directly, not via a newspaper crossword puzzle. And the cryptography team at Bletchley Park ultimately consisted of hundreds of people collaborating, not the small team depicted in the movie.

These mistakes I can forgive. I understand that for the purposes of dramatic narrative, some changes have to be made. That's why it's "Based on" a true story, and not "A True Story". However some changes are harder to understand.

Turing here is depicted as having a condition resembling Aspergers, possibly autism. In reality, Turing's social skills were normal, he had a good sense of humour and worked well with colleagues - entirely unlike how the film portrays him.

Turing's chemical castration is depicted as leaving him unable to think clearly or do any work. In reality, he was doing pioneering work on mathematical biology during his hormone treatment.

A subplot involving Turing's involvement with John Cairncross, a soviet spy working inside Bletchley Park, appears to have been entirely made up. They did not work together, in fact they never even met, and Cairncross has been turned into a bumbling double-agent in the film, seemingly just to make things a bit more exciting.

The machine that Turing made was not called "Christopher", the name of his first childhood love, but "The Bombe". It exists in real life, you can go see it at Bletchley Park. It has none of the exciting red wires draped over it that you see in the movie, in an attempt to make it look a bit more nerdy.

Finally, there is a caption outright stating that Turing committed suicide. In reality, this is a matter of considerable debate. The chemical castration period ended fourteen months before his death. The official inquest into his death ruled that he had committed suicide by consuming a cyanide-laced apple.

Jack Copeland, an editor of volumes of Turing's work and Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, has suggested that Turing's death may have been accidental, caused by the cyanide fumes produced by an experiment in his spare room, and that the coroner's investigation was poorly conducted.

Hollywood is obsessed with the trope that all people with above-average intelligence are also tortured souls, spending their life battling hidden demons. Creative licence is one thing, but slandering a great man's reputation – while buying into the nasty 1950s prejudice that gay men automatically constituted a security risk – is quite another.

The film had great potential, both as a celebration of possibly one of the greatest British minds in all of human history, and as a reminder of how far we have come in recognising gay rights and equality for all.

It fails at both.

I did want to also talk about a few things that the movie portrayed accurately, which mostly revolves around the mathematics and technology that Turing invented.

Starting with the title itself. Turing believed that machines would one day be able to think in the same way that humans think. If you assume that to be true, the question becomes, how could you tell? How do you tell the difference between a machine pretending to think like a human, and one that actually is? To give an example, "Siri" in your iPhone pretends to think like a human, but obviously isn't.

Turing proposed a test called "The Imitation Game". It involves sitting down in front of a keyboard and printer (today, this would be a keyboard and monitor) and typing messages back and forth to an unseen partner. You do this both with the machine, and also to another human, but you are not told which is which. If you can't tell the difference - which is the machine and which is the human, then the machine passes and is judged to be "thinking like a human".

Today, this is called the "Turing test". No computer has yet passed it, but some have come close.

Throughout the movie, Turing is shown to be obsessed with the idea of an "Automatic machine". The Bombe, and later Colossus, could perform sequences of very fast calculations on data that you gave it, but you could not change what those calculations were without rewiring the machine. The machines were, literally, "hard-wired". There is even a scene showing Turing rewiring the Bombe.

Turing imagined a machine in which the calculations to be performed on the data were also part of the data itself. In other words, a machine could be designed to perform any calculation, but exactly what it did depended on the data that you fed it. The instructions that you gave it could even theoretically end up re-writing those initial instructions, giving rise to a machine which could tell itself what to do.

At the end of the movie Turing is shown building a prototypical "automatic machine" in his house. This was a success, and ended up becoming the "Automatic Computing Engine" at the National Physical Laboratory in 1951.

Today, automatic machines are called "computers".