Directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Graham Moore, based on the book by Andrew Hodges. Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.
by Joseph E. Green
Ones and zeroes. Yes and no. Push and pull. Open and closed. The device I type these words on is a very complex machine which, at its most basic core, simply consists of an enormous number of on/off switches. A binary code, sufficiently extended, can be used to codify virtually anything. It was out of this that the mathematician Alan Turing, along with his fellows at Bletchley Park, built the formidable digital Colossus, the machine that would defeat (to some extent) the Nazi Enigma.
The new film The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who came to work at Bletchley in Hut Eight as a codebreaker. The Enigma machine, as developed by the Nazis, carried vital information in a code with new settings each morning which would “not logically be repeated before 200 million subsequent depressions. The Germans therefore understandably regarded Enigma transmissions as unbreakable…” (Keegan 499). Turing and his fellows, including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), did break the code and helped win World War II. They used a machine Turing designed called the Bombe – ‘Christopher’ in the film.
Within the structure of a standard Hollywood biopic, the film is enormously compelling and contains a brilliant performance from Cumberbatch at the center. Fans of BBC’s Sherlock know he can effectively portray one type of alienating genius, but his Alan Turing is a distinct creature, possessing the emotions that Sherlock lacks but terrified to display them. And there is some historical basis for portraying Turing this way – we know, for example, that although not a statistician himself, Turing had such respect for raw data that he was an ‘early adopter’ of ESP. Seeing the evidence of above-chance ‘hits’ produced in ESP experiments, he felt compelled to accept it at least provisionally. (Hofstadter 599) If for no other reason, the film is worth seeing the film for Cumberbatch alone, and especially in his opening dialogue with the naval officer played by Charles Dance – a perfect one-act play in itself.
That is, the film is effective. Now, as history, things go somewhat awry. The London Guardian has taken the cudgel to it for a number of inaccuracies, which you can find here:
Some of the issues in the film are defensible from a dramatic perspective, but others (like the double agent) are less so. However, given its problems, I think the film does two things extremely well, and I would like to describe those things in some detail.
ONE: THE TURING TEST
The first thing the film does well is give a real sense of the Turing Test, what it means, and its relation to computing history. Stephen Fry relates a story of visiting the Apple headquarters and asking an executive there whether the famous Apple “bite” logo was based on Turing. (Turing committed suicide by biting a poisoned apple.) The answer, Fry reports, was “No. But God, we wish it were.” It is hard to exaggerate how important Turing was to computing history. Although the other part of this story involves John von Neumann, who was an advisor to IBM and also found work during World War II, at Los Alamos. More on this connection later. (Poundstone 76)
So what was the Imitation Game? Invented by Turing and now more familiarly known as the Turing Test, the game is a thought experiment. It suggests that computers can be said to be thinking, at least in some sense, when they fool humans approximately fifty percent of the time. He imagines two people, a man and a woman called A and B for the purposes of the game, and an interrogator designated C. He then proposes the following question:
We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines think?’ (Hofstadter, 595-596).
A simple enough game, but one that spurred much of the early thinking in artificial intelligence. There are problems, of course. Last year it was a said a computer ‘passed’ the Turing Test by fooling 33% of respondents into believing that it was Eugene, a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine. While we shouldn’t immediately suggest our computers pass themselves off as geniuses, emulating Eugene amounts to cheating.
Although the film suggests that Turing was more of a one-man show then was the reality at Bletchley, it is hard to overstate how important he was to the beginning of computers. Like Charles Babbage before him, he saw computers as essentially large physical things – and Colossus itself was an enormous machine – rather than the pocket-sized connection devices they have come to be.
In order to come to grips with it, Turing tried to imagine how the concept of a ‘machine’ could be formalized, its operation being broken down into elementary terms. It seems clear that Turing also regarded a human brain to be an example of a ‘machine’ in his sense, so whatever activities might be that carried out by human mathematicians, these also would have to come under the heading of ‘mechanical procedures.’ (Penrose 34)
Thus, Turing had something to do with the notion of seeing human brains as essentially physical machines, even postulating using more than one operating in concert – what is known now as parallel processing. Although as Penrose himself observes, using parallel Turing machines actually does not help solve any particular problem, because any Turing machines that communicate with one another are effectively one Turing machine. (Penrose 48)
Now a Turing machine works on a problem until it halts – that is, delivers an answer. The movie shows this quite effectively as at first Christopher simply runs, and runs, and runs, going through all the possibilities. The problem is that there are too many variables to run through in a finite amount of time, even if you can bring the brute force of machinery to the task. Incidentally, there are certain problems to this day that continue to stymie computers – a class of problems known as NP-complete, which are fascinating but a sidebar to our subject here. The Bletchley group, as shown in the film, hits upon a way to reduce the number of variables to make it possible for Christopher to halt and deliver the answer.
This is all done with great dramatic skill and power by the screenwriter and director. It is not easy to get this technical information across in a way that has impact, and although there is some inevitable dumbing down, the idea gets put across. It also accurately conveys the mental acuity necessary to work on problems of this sort. Again, quoting Turing himself:
The original question ‘Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless, I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted. (Hofstadter, 597).
As it happens, at this time the latest work on artificial intelligence concerns itself with attempting to replicate the structure of the human brain. This would seem to be problematic, given that the brain is a very poorly understood organ, as a survey of the mood-altering industry will evidence. The research is, not too surprisingly, funded by DARPA.
While Turing’s prediction has not quite come true – indeed, the debate rages on – we are seemingly closer than ever to this being so. Certainly we might imagine that if a computer such as, say, the Internet, wanted to learn about human behavior, it has been granted the greatest repository of human insights ever made available to a single ‘entity.’ (This sort of speculation made into a short story of my own, “Translation,” collected in A Slew of Unfortunates.)
TWO: THE SECRECY
The other thing that I think the film does very well is give a sense of the entire operation. The work, needless to say, was classified. Even after the Enigma code was broken, it had to remain secret – so as to not to tip off the Nazis to abandon their machine. There were scores of people working on the top secret project, which went all the way up to Winston Churchill, who famously declared, “Give them what they want.” It was highly coordinated, and is credited with shortening World War II by two years, according to a consensus of historians at least.
And they kept it secret. For nearly fifty years.
Think about that for a minute. In my most recent book, Dissenting Views II, I pointed out that both Bletchley Park and the Manhattan Project were examples of known, successful conspiracies. That is to say, they operated precisely as conspiracies are supposed to, and would otherwise be vulnerable to the same sort of criticisms hurled at other conspiracies.
Someone would have talked.
There’s no way to keep a large-scale conspiracy going with that many people involved.
Those complaints are dead. Because we are no longer positing a theoretical possibility anymore. We know there are demonstrable precedents. These things happened.
This was a conspiracy not only maintained by Winston Churchill, but by every British government for decades. Sure, it was a benign conspiracy – it won the war, you say. And it did finally come out. But suppose you had a government that indulged itself in a conspiracy that was not so benign. A domestic assassination or two, perhaps.
How long could you keep that covered up?
A long time.
Mark Strong, as Stewart Menzies of MI6 in the film, represents the calculating elite with their mysterious global chess matches. “Oh Alan,” he tells a bewildered Turing, “We’re going to have such a wonderful war together.” World War II would prove to be the triumph of the statisticians, the counters, the bloodless architects predicting (and constructing) future conflicts from their desks and their Turing machines. Oppenheimer, von Neumann, Teller and Turing, for better of for worse, would be the sparks for the technical world to come. Clive James, in his analysis of Richard Rhodes’s marvelous books The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun, writes:
The chief virtue of Rhodes’s book about Los Alamos is to give you the feeling of how a group of the cleverest men on Earth combined their best efforts in the belief that building a bomb to kill a hundred thousand people at a time was the only thing to do. There can be moral discussions of the modern world that don’t take that fact in, but they won’t be serious. (James 609)
During World War I, the slaughter made the techniques of Genghis Khan more efficient, but the gains were practical, remaining on the plane of ruthless engineering. The coming of the eggheads meant new ways of thinking about war, and opened the door for charts, statistics, accounts, and strategy at a new level of remove. Clive James’s remark seems quite appropriate. Unless we understand how this modern world operates, and under what circumstances the big decisions are made, we can have discussions, but they won’t be serious. For all its historical flaws, The Imitation Game does a fine job bringing home both technical ideas difficult to convey in a Hollywood movie, as well as the broader idea of widespread and continued secrecy to the general public. In this, I find merit.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books: NY 1979).
James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia (W. W. Norton: NY 2007).
Keegan, John. The Second World War (Penguin Books: NY 1989).
Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind (Penguin Books/Oxford University Press: 1989).
Poundstone, William. The Prisoner’s Dilemma (Anchor Books: NY 1992).