Wednesday, 24 December 2014

film review: The Imitation Game

Alan Turing did seminal work in several fields – on the fundamental theory of computing, Artificial Intelligence (the Imitation Game of the title), biological morphogenesis – and contributed to several others – neural networks, the Reimann zeta function, the quantum Zeno effect, and more. One area I’m not aware of him having contributed to (although I may well be wrong!) is the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Which is a pity, as this movie is clearly set in an alternate reality.

In this alternate (or merely fictional) universe, Alan Turing [Benedict Cumberbatch] is a semi-autistic anti-social loner, who single-handedly, against the opposition of his co-workers, builds a giant computer that breaks the German Enigma code, so winning WWII, and then goes mad in Manchester, building another computer in his front room to recreate his schoolboy crush, Christopher.

Don’t get me wrong: this alternate universe story is well told, and is the basis of my “worth watching” rating. I very much enjoyed it, with its interleaved flashbacks between his schooldays, the WWII code-breaking, the Manchester incident, the complex relationships between the characters, and the celebration of intellectual prowess and of difference generally. But I enjoyed it only as an alternate world story. Don’t rely on anything here as historically accurate (the movie’s disclaimer basically says as much); there was a person called Alan Turing, he was gay, and he was involved in breaking the Enigma code during WWII, but that’s probably it. (Oh, and Euler is pronounced Oi-ler, not You-ler.) If you want a better shot at the reality, read the book this film is “based” on: Hodges’ The Enigma of Intelligence

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  1. The main thing is, though, if you like those little electronic gadgets that you carry around everywhere and use all the time, you have Turing to thank for them. It was what he did during the war that lead to computers. Thinking machines were his thing. In fact, computers were originally called Turing machines.

    1. He invented what we now call the Turing Machine *before* WWII. His paper "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungs problem" was published in 1937.