Which would all be fine and even largely good in terms of depicting scientists positively, if it weren’t that this is a two-way process and we’ve begun to accept fantasy elements as being facts about Turing’s life.
Turing is now regularly described as being the “father” of computing. Or of computing science. Or artificial intelligence. Sometimes all three. As the only name most of us are familiar with among the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, he is often depicted as if he unraveled the secrets of the Enigma machine entirely unaided. And it’s often said that without him, what I’m writing this on (and in all likelihood you’re reading it on) would not exist.
None of that is entirely a lie. None of it is really true . Which may sound like an attempt at an enigma, but it’s not. As I have written before, we are fond of the myth of the lone genius. Turing may have “lived alone” but he didn’t work alone. His famous code-breaking Bombe, for instance, benefitted from tweaking by mathematician Gordon Welchman and engineer Harold Keen. And it got its name because it was itself based on an earlier device to crack the Enigma ciphers called the Bomba developed by Polish cryptologists.
Unquestionably he played the leading role – but it was not a one man show. And the claims about Turing being the big daddy of computing and artificial intelligence are even more questionable: both have many fathers (and a few mothers) and even without his considerable input does anyone really think we would not have computers very similar to the ones we now use?
So perhaps we need a different kind of Turing test – not one that can aid us in telling machine from human, but one which enable us to discriminate between the facts and fictions as our desire to have science heroes risks us forgetting the collective, collaborative nature of most scientific advances. Turing was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the last century, but shedding light on his achievements shouldn’t involve plunging all those he worked with into the shadows.