The supervisor of my machine learning PhD was Mike Bain at UNSW, Sydney. His PhD supervisor was Donald Michie, a friend and colleague of Alan Turing in the 1940s. Last weekend, Mike and I went to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Turing in The Imitation Game, released January 1 in Australia, and afterwards we headed for the bar and compared notes.
Here’s the main storyline of the film in two points: 1. Alan Turing is a socially awkward mathematical genius who can’t get along with anyone. 2. At Bletchley Park, the site of UK’s secret code and cipher operations, Turing eventually prevails in his idea to build a machine to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine, and wins the war.
I don’t really mind deviations from reality to tell a good story, but I think there are important things to learn in the gaps of this film. So, here are two differences that reveal lessons about innovation, design and collaboration.
1. Alan Turing was more awkward than even the film portrays, and it cramped his technical work.
As much as I like Benedict Cumberbatch (and I think Sherlock is exceptional), how awkward could the deep-voiced actor possibly be? Take these excerpts from Andrew Hodges’s biography, on which the film is based:
Near the beginning of June he would suffer from hay fever, which blinded him as he cycled to work, so he would use a gas mask to keep the pollen out, regardless of how he looked. … He made a defence of his tea-mug by attaching it with a combination lock to a Hut 8 radiator pipe. … Trousers held up by string, pyjama jacket under his sports coat … There was his voice, liable to stall in mid-sentence with a tense, high-pitched ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah’ while he fished, his brain almost visibly labouring away, for the right expression, meanwhile preventing interruption. … Once a personnel form came round the Huts, and some joker filled it in for him. ‘Turing A.M. Age 21’, but others said it should be ‘Age 16’. (Hodges, p. 209)
As Michie told Mike some years ago, Turing just never engaged in small talk, but what I find most interesting is how such a manner can interfere with technical work. I’ve always rejected the idea that technical work can be independent of human factors. The Imitation Game makes it clear that Turing was doomed for failure without the assistance of a team, but more than that, consider these two stories of technical failure at the micro level.
On chess playing:
[Turing’s] chess had always been something of a joke at Bletchley … [Harry Golombek] complained that Alan had no idea how to make the pieces work together, and it might well be that as in his social behaviour, he was too conscious of what he was trying to do, to play with fluency. As Jack Good saw it, he was too intelligent to accept as obvious the moves that others might make without thinking. He always had to work it out from the beginning. (Hodges, p. 265)
On user experience:
It was Alan’s job to make the Manchester machine convenient to use, but his ideas of convenience were not always shared by others. … The ‘fussy little detail’ of binary to decimal conversion he now found not worth bothering about. He himself found it simple to work directly in the base-32 arithmetic in which the machine could be regarded as working, and expected other people to do the same. (Hodges, pp. 398-9)
2. Decryption of Enigma was actually highly collaborative, and never final.
In the film, Enigma is cracked after a pub discussion one night, and Turing’s team of a mere five cryptographers emerge victorious, their place in history assured. In reality, the scale of the operation was far greater and far more difficult.
Turing began his cryptographic work in 1938—before the war—and, in time, collaborated with Polish, French and US analysts. The naval Enigma code wasn’t cracked until mid-1941. What followed was a stunning example of collective hubris (or was it classic groupthink?):
… the German authorities decided that the positions of the supply vessels had somehow been disclosed, and set up an investigation. Their experts, however, ruled out the possibility that the Enigma cipher had been broken. Instead, they pinned the blame upon the British secret service, which enjoyed a high reputation in German ruling circles. It was a diagnosis remote from the truth. They had assigned an a priori probability of zero to Enigma decryption, and no weight of evidence sufficed to increase it. (Hodges, p. 201)
A change in Enigma design in February 1942 put the Atlantic into darkness, but careless mistakes in German encryption made decryption possible again in December 1942. It was only in the last week of the war that the German navy achieved cipher security, all too late.
If you’ve never come across Alan Turing before, he was Time Magazine’s computer scientist of the 20th century. His 1936 logic for a “universal computing machine” was the remarkable precursor of the modern computer, and his wartime discussions with Jack Good and Donald Michie gave birth to artificial intelligence and machine learning.
By all means go and see The Imitation Game, but don’t stop there. Make time to read more about one of the most important minds of modernity.
Page references: Andrew Hodges (1992), Alan Turing: The Engima, Vintage edition.