UK government says sorry for 1950s prosecution of computer pioneer Alan Turing

The British prime minister has issued an official apology for the 1950s mistreatment of Alan Turing, the man sometimes dubbed “the father of modern computer science.” It follows a petition signed by more than 30,000 people and may boost the case for Turing receiving a posthumous knighthood.

Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for gross indecency, his “crime” simply being to engage in a sexual relationship with another man, at the time an illegal act. After being convicted, his sentence gave him the choice of being imprisoned or undergoing chemical castration; he chose the latter option. Turing died two years later of cyanide poisoning, with the cause of death ruled as suicide.

Though Turing had written on computer theory in the 1930s, he rose to prominence during the second world war by playing a major role in the efforts to crack the Enigma encryption system used for Nazi communication.

After the war he worked on Manchester Mark 1, one of the first stored-program computers. Such machines differed from their predecessors because its program was stored in computer memory (and thus easily replaceable) rather than being hard-wired into the system. This effectively created what we now know as a computer, as opposed to single-purpose devices such as an electronic calculator.

Turing also largely pioneered the concept of artificial intelligence and the process of checking an AI system by attempting to fool a human into thinking they are conversing with another person. This is still known as the Turing test.

Following his conviction, Turing’s professional career was effectively ended. He was stripped of his security clearance which meant he could no longer work on government encryption techniques.

Earlier this year, computer scientist John Graham-Cumming launched a petition through a facility on the Prime Minister’s website, calling for an apology for the prosecution. At the time it was closed, 31,277 people had signed it.

Gordon Brown has now issued an apology, noting “It is no exaggeration to say that, without [Turing’s] outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different… The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”

Let’s leave the last word to Dr Samuel Johnson who, despite having died in 1784, maintains a Twitter account:

“Computational Molly Mister Alan TURING is pardon’d; now to forgive Signor VOLTA for gadding about in Tights.”

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