In Defense of Life: Alan Turing, the Original Hacker.

Computer Scientist, Author, Artist, and Musician
According to Jaron Lanier, the right way to understand Alan Turing's famous "Turing Test" is to understand that it "began in the mind of somebody who was in a deeply, deeply uncomfortable possible situation, who was very close to suicide, and that it amounted to a flight from life, but also a defense of life."
  • Transcript


Jaron Lanier: One of the many aspects of the tragedy of Turing's death is that he wasn't able to tell us more about how he was thinking about his last communications.  So I have to tread on very delicate and uncertain territory because I don't want to put words in his mouth or assume. So....

Alan Turing invented computers and he was the first hacker.  He broke Nazi secret code using computers, and no one had done anything like that before.  And he was in a remarkable strange historical position because his invention of computing made him one of the unquestionable heroes of World War II.  However, he emerged from it as somebody who was living illegally in his own society because he was gay at a time when it was illegal to be gay in Britain.

At a certain point, without going into all the details, he was put under house arrest and subjected to a torturous medical regime that was supposed to change his sexual orientation so that he would become straight, and it involved forcing him to accept massive doses of female hormones.  And he generated breasts and other female characteristics and became very depressed, and he killed himself in front of his computer using a very strange ritual, sort of like . . . I mean who can know what he was thinking, but he laced an apple with cyanide and ate it.

The reason to tell this horrible story is just to point out that the invention of the artificial intelligence idea, the invention of the idea that the computer is doing something on its own and that it's not just being programmed came out of Turing's mind during this last, very last period of his life in the weeks before his death, and he wrote a couple of notes about it in this argument that is known as the Turing Test.  He proposed that a computer that could answer questions and be indistinguishable to a judge from a real person perhaps should be treated as a real person because who are we deny it moral rights?  

And I think if you look at the argument in the abstract it looks like an argument for computationalism--that computers and people are fundamentally the same, that we are building a big entity in the internet and all that--, but if you look at it in the context of Turing's life a completely different picture appears, which is you realize, here is this person who is being murdered for who he is after having been one of the heroes of liberating people who were being murdered for who they were.  When you realize the absolute and thunderous irony of his situation and then you think about his having created this thought experiment where he's saying, should this weird creature have rights?, I think it puts it in a very different light.  And I think the right way to understand Turing is to understand that this whole thought began in the mind of somebody who was in a deeply, deeply uncomfortable, the most uncomfortable possible situation very close to suicide, and that it amounted to a flight from life, but also a defense of life. 

It could have been a lot of things.  It could have been a "reductio ad absurdum."  If you're telling me that I don't deserve to be a human as I am, well, then make this machine human.  It could have been that sort of thing.  And I think it's very possibly what it was.  It could also have been, "My God, what would it take for you people to give anybody respect?  What's the secret?"  You know, sort of a desperate cry of, like, "What is the secret code to get some respect as a person around here?"  I don't really know, but the point I want to make is that the wrong interpretation is surely the one that has taken hold, which is, oh yeah, let's treat the computers as people, you know?  

So Turing invented this whole thing.  He made up computers and the whole came out of his head pretty much.  Von Neumann also did part of it, of course, but the basic track that we're all still grooving in was laid down by this guy who was murdered by his own government for being gay. And we shouldn't forget that.  That's our origin.  That's the real, you know . . . I think when you really delve into the truth to the human stories you start to discover things that are quite different from the abstractions and the generalities.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd