Thursday 13 November 2014

The Imitation of Intelligence

Benedict Cumberbatch starring at Alan Turing alongside Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game.


To the Science Museum last night, to see the London premier of The Imitation Game, a film about Alan Turing. Museum staff took ages to manage the audience, and were at cross-purposes as to how to check that customers had bought their tickets. Collectively, they gave the Museum a bad name, and their procedures were no advertisement for science. It gave me time to look at steam engines, and to wonder if I have been too harsh to researchers who claim we are in the grip of dysgenics. The director was interviewed before the film, which was the wrong way round. It meant that many of his answers were of the form “as you will see in the film, but I won’t spoil it for you”. Placed at the end, we could have asked specific questions. Perhaps the Science Museum staff have too high an opinion of themselves.

The film faced a difficult task: it had to show highly complex crypto-analytic techniques in a way which would engage a general audience. Discussing the actual techniques was out of the question, so artistic licence was used in industrial quantities, and in the end the story was that the Germans had built a fiendishly complicated machine and Turing, deeply misunderstood and hindered by colleagues who were fools, eventually built his own machine which solved the puzzle. If you are interested, read Wikipedia or the score of books on the subject. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s “Enigma”(2000) is good, but there are many others: Hinsley and Stripp “Codebreakers” (1993) is a good example which comes to hand.

Better still, spend a day at Bletchley Park. The code breakers used “cribs” much of the time: they knew that enemy weather stations would have to report the weather, submarines the positions of shipping, and that the very most important orders might include the sequence of letters “Hitler”. (I have encoded this sequence on an Enigma machine myself, wearing white gloves, not out of deference to afore-named assassin, but as a courtesy to the curator of the Bletchley Park museum, to protect the machine I was using). Insights into human behaviour (not provided by psychologists) made an important contribution: some German operators did not bother to carry out proper randomisation of initial setting letters and rotors, so it was worthwhile checking whether an operator had been lazy first, and then going through the longer standard checking procedure which assumed full randomisation.

Apart from attending lectures given by Hugh Alexander (sadly before he could talk very much about his code-breaking work) and Captain Jerry Roberts, I have also spoken to others who worked there at the time. A great pity that secrecy was maintained for too long, and much of the machinery destroyed. Probably Churchill’s greatest error, and that is saying something.

Of more interest is how the film depicts intelligence. Heartless, socially awkward, inept, boastful and untidy seemed to have been Turing’s main characteristics in the eyes of the film makers. Also, able to do big sums easily. Finally, to put the nail in the coffin: no sense of humour. Compared to that, his homosexuality was a redeeming sin. The top team of code-breakers were made to look like fools by comparison, which was a crude way of showing his genius. With just a few additional minutes the director could have shown a sliver of the problems and solutions attempted by the team. He did not even deal with the concept of contradiction which was central to Turing’s technique, and useful to the story the film was telling. Hugh Alexander, Gordon Welchman (not depicted), Jack Good, Tommy Flowers (not depicted) were brilliant minds, and better scripts could have been provided for the code breaking team than the bully boy banalities and fisticuffs of the film. The mathematician Peter Hilton was portrayed, but as a mere cypher, and without a mention of his masterly palindrome, the product of a sleepless night:


When reading a palindrome from left-to-right, it is impossible to locate the "middle" until the entire word has been read completely. Please time how long it takes you to check that it is right, and to identify the keystone letter.

The animations of the bombing of London were very good, probably the best scene in the film. The fearsomeness of the Blitz was well shown. The crossword puzzling Londoners in their shelters was a brilliant idea. Keira Knightly played very well, a star performance. Cumberbatch did the very best with his character. He was believable and moving. The young Turing was also very well played. Charles Dance was a bit over the top as Commander Denniston, but was enjoying himself, and enjoyable to watch. Mark Stewart as the MI6 leader Stewart Menzies was the most convincing. Good supporting parts thoughout, and the spirit of the age well conveyed. A well made film.

What a pity that Turing’s mind was shown as part machine, and mostly autistic demon. The director said in his interview that he had got closer to understanding Turing, but I can only say he still had far to go. He used the device of casting Turing as struggling to pass the Turing test. That’s fine, but some of his concepts could have been animated and explained, without mathematics. The film did not even show that every key press caused one or more rotors to step by one twenty-sixth of a full rotation, before the electrical connections were made, which is what made it so hard to break.

In fact, a contemporary of his whose lecture I listened to shortly before he died, Captain Jerry Roberts (UCL German 1941) said that Turing mostly sat quietly at his desk thinking, such that Roberts “doubted he was earning his corn”, though he revised his opinion later. I cannot think of a way of showing thinking, other than an animation of concepts interacting in a design, cascade or lines of force. The team that made the first TV version of Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe” years ago did pretty well, by showing some of the ideas in a news headline type panel on the margins of the screen.

It is silly to expect too much of films, but the audience must have been left feeling that high intelligence was useful in times of need, but otherwise a curse. Tortured genius is just too good a parody for a film maker to turn down.


  1. Did they mentioned a work by Polish mathematicians? No? I knew it.

  2. As far as I recall, not even a sausage, nor a Sliwika chocolate plum. I think it was Rejewski who was held up for a while because he could not believe the Germans would be so foolish as to arrange the letters on the rotor in ALPHABETICAL order. He had spent sleepless night worrying about that. (There is a good Polish monument at Bletchley Park).

  3. the robert harris novel made the poles, of all people, the villains.

  4. polish governments stolen enigma machine used to be in the little polish museum in south kensington(round the corner from imperial). wonder if it is still there?

  5. Re palindrome - not very long (for me) - less than 30 seconds, anyway - "P".

    "Heartless, socially awkward, inept, boastful and untidy"

    Do you mean that the film isn't (as I fully expected) a searing indictment of the homophobic hatred levelled by inferior straights against the gay genius who soared so high above them on every level ? Maybe it IS possible to be too cynical.

  6. Yes, I was expecting too much of the film, and recognize it has to attract viewers, and fit in with contemporary expectations. Anyway, well done with the palindrome. Final point: can you sign out with unique identifier, so I know which warm, socially adept, capable, modest and tidy Anonymous I have the pleasure of corresponding with? all the best.

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