Alan Turing's Body

By Robinson Meyer
Jon Callas/Flickr

On Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II pardoned the computer scientist Alan Mathison Turing.

Nearly all of the modern world is constructed on Turing’s accomplishments. He helped crack Germany’s “Enigma” code in World War II, contributed two important proofs to mathematics, and established foundational concepts in computer science and artificial intelligence. Without him, the Allies might not have won the war, and you might not have a machine which can display this article.

Turing also had consensual sexual relations with other men, and, for them, was convicted for “gross indecency” under an 1885 criminal law. The queen pardoned him for these on Tuesday.

The pardon is written in a high royal celebratory register, which doesn’t match the somber tone which the events seem to deserve.  I was surprised when, in the text of the pardon, I found something that almost constituted recursion, a building block of programming.

First, the formal document declares it intentions: “to pardon and remit unto [Turing] the sentence imposed upon him.”

Then, it turns the document into the pardon itself, and makes the pardon a reality: “And for so doing[,] this shall be a sufficient Warrant.”

The pardon executes, as a program would, and Alan Turing is forgiven.

***

Renaissance English royal law insists, mystically and metaphysically, that the king has two bodies.

Its theorists did so explicitly: “For the King has in him two Bodies, [namely] a Body natural, and a Body politic,” writes the jurist Edmund Plowden in 1571.

The king’s first body, the natural one, remains a “Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident.” The body politic, meanwhile, is everlasting, “consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People.” It is immutable, “utterly void of Infancy, and old Age.”

The body politic, most importantly, “cannot be seen or handled”; it’s invisible, passed down from reign to reign. The logic of the two bodies illuminates the cheer—“The King is dead; long live the King!”—and it led Elizabeth I to proclaim in her ascension speech, “I am but one body naturally considered, though by [God’s] permission a body politic to govern.”

Now the queen, the second named Elizabeth, has granted a rare royal pardon, the fourth during her reign. Usually only granted to those found innocent by investigation, Turing’s was extended at the request of the justice minister, Chris Grayling. Her “natural body” did not even lend its signature to the declaration: It is signed by Grayling.

When Turing was convicted for gross indecency, the British government forced him to choose between chemical castration and imprisonment; he chose castration, which meant taking estrogen pills. The pills made him impotent and grow breasts. They also depressed him.

Turing was used to eating an apple before bed. On June 7, 1954, he ate one that had purportedly been injected with cyanide, and he died. The local coroner’s office ruled his death a suicide; now, at least one expert doubts that ruling. Turing was 41.

The queen’s pardon follows a years-long attempts to excuse Turing through other legal means. In 2009, Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, apologized to him. 

“I am very proud to say: we’re sorry,” Brown wrote in the Telegraph. “You deserved so much better.” 

Last year, on Turing’s centenary, members of parliament introduced legislation to formally pardon him. It did not pass: Parliamentarians decided they could not pardon someone for a crime that person had knowingly committed, even if the government no longer considered the offending act criminal. As Brown wrote in 2009, Turing “was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back.” (After the pardon’s failure, 10,000 people promptly petitioned for Turing to be added to the £10 note.)

Now, Queen Elizabeth II has done what elected officials did not.

The “royal prerogative of mercy,” the formal title for a King or Queen’s pardon, is one of the central affordances of English royalty. Its language is old and pleonastic, comfortable in its somber power.

That makes it all the more stomach-turning to read. “Now Know Ye,” it reads, “that We, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented unto Us, are Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and to grant him Our Free Pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.” 

Perhaps this is standard language, but being “pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy” feels inadequate in any register. Turing should be forgiven for nothing; he did nothing we’d consider criminal. If any entity requires pardoning, it’s the government. And yet the same government, in the body of its messenger, is pleased to excuse itself.

The pardon continues, becoming more and more magically legal. There is that recursion again: “And to pardon and remit unto him the sentence imposed upon him as aforesaid; And for so doing this shall be a sufficient Warrant.” The document only has to say the pardon exists, and it becomes real.

***

Addressing the question “Can machines think?”, Turing proposed a game. He called it “the Imitation Game,” and it goes like this: A human judge corresponds in writing with two unseen parties. One of the parties is human; the other is a machine. If the hidden human successfully convinces the judge of her humanity, the human wins. If the judge can’t tell which of the two is human, the machine wins.

If a machine can convince a human that it, too, is human, it has passed the famous “Turing test.”

The game turns on deception: The ability to act like a human, to perform humanity, supplants functioning like one. As Ian Bogost wrote last year on this website, the same concept drives Turing’s other great contribution to computer science—the universal computing machine. (Which is sometimes called the “Turing machine.”) Bogost writes:

In the form Turing proposed, this machine is a device that manipulates symbols on a strip of tape. Through simple instructions like move forward, erase, write, and read, such a machine can enact any algorithm—and indeed, the design of modern CPUs is based directly on this principle.

Unlike other sorts of machines, the purpose of a Turing machine is not to carry out any specific task like grinding grain or stamping iron, but to simulate any other machine by carrying out its logic through programmed instructions. A computer, it turns out, is just a particular kind of machine that works by pretending to be another machine.

Code—whether the ciphers of an enemy or the programmatic commands of software—pretends. It pretends to generate random noise, perhaps, or it pretends to be a calculator. And since code pretends, it is pretend, and it can bring fantastic ideas to life, ideas like an accounting ledger that can also do math, ideas like a book that includes its own card catalog or an instantaneous way of sending mail. 

Ideas like the queen’s second body.

“Code is law,” Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig observed before the turn of the century. Code is law and code is pretend and since it’s pretend we can take code back, we can command-Z or delete the instruction and write something better. 

We can’t do the same for Turing’s pain. The instructions by which Turing suffered, executed by a body politic which he served, inflicted themselves on his human body and altered it. We can append to history but never emend it; we can’t take back Turing’s misery.

But there’s an upside to these pretending machines. In the strict domains of law and code, there is nothing but emulation. Pretend and pretend to something, and very soon you might ask what, exactly, you are pretending to be.

We can’t change Turing’s experience with a pardon. But his legacy mandates that we emulate, create, and codify humane and humble bodies politic, whether with law or with software, to steward and respect bodies natural. 

According to Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson, 75,000 men were convicted under the same law as Turing, some 26,000 of whom are still alive. (The law was repealed in 1967.) We might start by pardoning, or apologizing to, all those other men.

In his poem for the nativity, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden describes “the natural world where / The occupation of space is the real and final act.” Turing’s suffering belongs to that world. But in these two domains where to say something makes it so, where, for so doing, language can be a sufficient warrant, we can still dream of new things to emulate—dreams that might be more expansive and yet more humble.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/alan-turings-body/282641/