Former CNN chairman Walter Isaacson on why Alan Turing was a human, not a machine.
[The piece first appeared in a promotional newsletter sponsored by The Weinstein Company]
In addition to being a delightful movie, there were two particular insights in The Imitation Game that I admired, which is why I hope it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The movie — along with Benedict Cumberbatch’s sensitive portrayal of Alan Turing — reminds us of the value of collaboration when it comes to invention. Creativity is a team sport and the movie shows that vividly.
Turing was very much a loner by nature. He was socially awkward and his preferred relaxation was solitary long-distance running. The fact that he was gay also made him feel apart, an outsider.
But there comes a time in his work trying to break the German wartime codes at Hut 8 in Bletchley Park, England, when he realises he cannot succeed alone. He needs the support and collaboration of the others on the team. And he achieves that. It is an important lesson, for then and today, that innovation is not the sole purview of lone geniuses. It comes from creating great teams that can execute on a vision.
The movie’s other important insight is that it reminds us of how very human Alan Turing was — as are we all. His original concept of an “imitation game” is what we now call the Turing Test. He devised it as a way to show when the quest for “artificial intelligence” had succeeded and machines would be able to think in ways indistinguishable from humans.
He thought that would happen in a few decades. In fact, however, his own heroic and tragic life is a testament to the fact that for now — and perhaps way into the foreseeable future — there is something special about being human. The essence of human emotions, desires, free will and consciousness cannot be easily replicated in a machine.
As the movie poignantly and sensitively shows, when Turing is arrested because of his homosexuality, he is treated as if he’s some sort of machine, a chemically-based machine. He is sentenced to undergo hormone treatments to “reprogramme” his desires.
For a while Turing takes that treatment in stride. But then, afterwards, he dips an apple into a solution of cyanide and bites into it.
Is that something a machine would have done? No. The imitation game was over and the conclusion was clear. Turing was a human, not a machine.
Walter Isaacson is the former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine. He is also an author who knows a thing or two about game-changing subjects like The Imitation Game’s Alan Turing, having written the Steve Jobs biography that is the basis of the upcoming film adaptation written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle.