An interview with Dermot Turing: Alan Turing’s nephew
We were delighted to welcome Sir John Dermot Turing to our Distinguished Speaker Series, organised by the Centre for Information Management at the SBE.
Dermot is a solicitor and consultant with international law firm Clifford Chance, specialising in bank and investment firm regulation with several publications to his name in this area.
He is also the nephew of English mathematician Alan Turing, oft-called the ‘founder of modern computing’, with a new book out entitled Prof: Alan Turing Decoded. Dermot is also a trustee of Bletchley Park, where Turing and colleagues built the now-famous decoding machine ‘the Bombe’ in 1939, which helped Britain and its allies to defeat the Nazis.
We invited Dermot to have a pre-lecture chat with us on the myths and facts surrounding his uncle, the fascinating research Alan Turing was doing after WWII and how this work helped change the way we think about and use computers.
Interview with Sir John Dermot Turing
27 September 2016
Ondine: Why do you feel that your uncle, Alan Turing, needs championing?
Dermot: “I don’t think he does need championing, but I think perhaps what he does need is a bit of interpreting. There is perhaps an easy trap that people fall into that Benedict Cumberbatch is in fact Turing – people’s mental pictures of who Turing was will be informed by a great piece of acting and the scripts that went with that – but there is a question of putting the train back on the tracks. I’m not trying to say it was a bad one, but it’s like looking at something through slightly wiggly glass. It’s the right person, it’s the right picture, but it’s slightly wiggly glass.”
O: Tell me about your book Prof: Alan Turing Decoded.
D: “The question was whether there was a need for another Alan Turing biography – clearly I thought the answer was yes! But for a number of reasons.
“The first is the issue of the mythology around the man. Secondly, the biographies that are out there – apart from my grandmother’s biography – are quite technical, quite tough for general readers; so I thought I could have a go at it from a more amateurish perspective. And thirdly, and this I find quite surprising to be honest, there’s such a lot of stuff that’s new or that previous biographers didn’t talk about. So I thought we could balance it more by talking a bit about some of the things people are interested in – his trial, for example, and the question over whether he did or did not commit suicide.
“And also some of the technical stuff that the other biographers either covered in immense depth so you kind of lose the plot or they miss the exciting stuff – I mean I find early British computers quite fun and sexy! (laughs). And work he did at the end of his life, all the work on morphogenesis, it’s nothing to do with big data, but it’s colourful and it’s vibrant and it’s interesting, so I thought it was an opportunity to expose this new side of Alan Turing that no one has thought about much.
O: Why do you think it’s important that the work he did at Bletchley Park and beyond to be made known to the wider public.
D: “It’s really the other way around – it’s really to explain there’s more to Alan Turing than Bletchley Park. People tend to think Alan Turing equals Bletchley Park and Bletchley Park equals Alan Turing. As a trustee of Bletchley Park, it’s my constant duty to say that, ‘Alan Turing, and a whole load of others…’ – and that he wasn’t the most important one there.
“And also to say to people interested in Alan Turing that the most accessible and the most popular piece of work Alan Turing did was by no means from his perspective the most intellectually brilliant work he did. So, yes, I think it’s trying to put that into context, into perspective.”
O: Can we move onto your own thoughts about cryptography and artificial intelligence?
D: “That won’t take long! (laughs). I’m not sure that I’m taking sides on the issue of AI and ethics, morals… I’m not an expert, but those old questions that came out in the 1950s about whether machines can think still seem to get people exercised today – which I think is quite interesting – and it’s clear that today’s machines think in a different way from humans. But I’m also kind of with the people who say, ‘Well, humans are made of special electronic material and so it’s not unimaginable that that could be recreated artificially’. And that is all very interesting, but we’re getting into the territory of Ray Kurzweil. I’m more of a Sunday paper observer. It’s certainly very interesting.
“One of the things that is most interesting is that Alan Turing started thinking about this kind of stuff as early as 1947, when computers were seen as having a function of being very large calculating machines – not at all the way we use computers nowadays. So it’s not at all surprising that his initial thoughts on it were dismissed as being school-boy comic book fantasy rubbish. Once you can imagine a computer playing a game of chess, it sort of opens your imagination up to what the potential for AI is. You never could imagine you’d trust a piece of machinery back then to form the kinds of judgments that we depend on computers to perform better than us. That’s really quite remarkable.”
O: Do you think he would have been fascinated by the idea of autonomous cars?
D: “Well, yes, I think so… I do get asked a lot what do I think Alan Turing might have been working on by the end of his career had he lived longer, and of course the answer is, ‘I have no idea!’ But what I think is reasonably clear is that by the 1950s he’d moved away from computers as being things of interest in in their own right – that had been done to death in the 1940s – and actually, what he was doing was using computers as tools to solve the new problems he was interested in.
“My sense is that he was moving away from those sorts of thoughts about AI and more into the applied maths sphere, and was very interested in his biological problems. Would he have gone off in a biological direction? Would that have been killed off because of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA and everyone becoming obsessed with molecular biology? So what direction would he have gone into next? Who knows!
“My sense is that he wouldn’t have stuck with the whole machinery and intelligence thing. He probably would have been constantly asked about it, though, and would have found it particularly annoying.”
O: If there’s one myth about Alan Turing that you want to dispel, what would it be?
D: “This is hard because I’d want to pick five. But okay, I think the one that is on the top of my list is that Alan Turing was some kind of super nerd who was socially incapable of relating to other people. To take a scene from The Imitation Game, he didn’t understand when he was being invited to lunch.
“I’ve talked to the people who worked with him at Bletchley Park, and I’ve talked to people who worked with him after the war, and that’s not the picture that they give you. I’ve also talked to my father and I get the super nerd picture from the family – because this is trying to mix up a world of maths professors – you’ve probably got a few here and so I’ve got to be careful of what I say! There’s an academic persona that doesn’t mix well in the suburban middle class, solicitor with 2.4 kids environment… And although this is two brothers we’re talking about, there are incompatibles there, and so, yes, you get a super nerd picture from one and you get a picture of a normal work colleague from another, and you have to reconcile those.
“I think you can get a positive lesson from this because someone who I may perceive as being a complete nerd, the same person is perceived by someone else as being a positive contributor, helpful and friendly; somebody interesting to talk to. And I think that’s quite important particularly for young people who might feel like a fish out of water to understand.”
O: Do you have any advice to students looking to study AI and information management?
D: “Yes! Be really careful what you tweet! There’s a professor out there who has an app* who can determine whether you’re happy or not because of what you’ve tweeted, and that’s all going into some big data analyser, and some time later you’re going to be offered salt and vinegar crisps because of that tweet. [*Referencing Professor Tom Jackson & Dr Martin Sykora’s EMOTIVE project.]
“It’s kind of alarming, but it’s also extremely interesting in a number of ways – once I realise that’s how you’re measuring things, then I can change my behaviour and potentially other people’s behaviour. There’s some interesting stuff there.
“Big data is a very complex subject which needs not just understanding on the ways you can exploit it but also understanding from a philosophical perspective – the philosophers don’t talk to the AI people as much as they ought to.
“There are a lot of moral philosophy questions in the world of cryptology and communications security, the use of and ownership of data and what constitutes property and what constitutes privacy – these are challenging questions. And we’ve been proceeding with some speed over the last 10-15 years. Philosophers are trying to catch up, but the technology keeps coming along quicker – one could talk about block-chain technology etc – but that’s racing even further ahead.”
If you are interested in reading Sir John Dermot Turing’s book Prof: Alan Turing Decoded, we have a limited number of discount vouchers. Please email Ondine at firstname.lastname@example.org to get yours.
If you would like to find out more about Alan Turing, there is a very good site produced by the BBC (iWonder) on his life and work called ‘Alan Turing: Creator of modern computing’.