„Are you paying attention?“

by Ioana Paul

You are sitting in front of a computer, texting with two partners A and B. One is a someone, the other one is a something. If you cannot tell which one is human, which one is the machine, then the machine has passed the Turing Test, also called the Imitation Game.

The idea of the Turing test belongs to the famous mathematician Alan Turing. His contributions to the world of informatics have made him one of the fathers of computers and artificial intelligence. His fascinating life story is depicted in the 2015 award-winning movie ”The Imitation Game.”

 “Are you paying attention?” These are the first words you hear after starting the film. They thus set the tone for a suspenseful thriller about codebreaking and mathematics, war and homosexuality in the 20th century, stating from the very beginning that the viewer must actively participate in the process of the movie, solving its puzzle. Accused of sexual misconduct, Turing is being interrogated by a detective. Both he and the viewers are invited to play the imitation game, as the mathematician tells his war story.

With excellent cryptography skills, Alan Turing was recruited in the team of a secret project of the British Army. The goal? Breaking the Enigma machine, a highly complicated communication system used by the Germans in the Second World War. A solitary figure with extraordinary intellectual abilities and a passion for solving games, Turing decided to start working on his own complex machine, with the potential to decode the Enigma.”What if only a machine can break a machine?”  

Estranging himself from his teammates, he became the misunderstood genius. He received no support for his research and his ideas until a new member, a woman named Joan Clarke, joined the team of codebreakers. As a savvy female cryptanalyst, she struggled to prove her worth and intelligence in a society where her field of expertise was mostly occupied by men. She understood Turing and his thoughts, their relationship evolving into a sincere, long-lasting friendship. They even got engaged, but their love remained on a platonic level, both being in love with each other’s minds.

The movie alternates between different years and stories. It portrays Turing’s teenagehood, his keenness for solving puzzles, his contribution to the Second World War and the difficulties he is forced to face afterwards in the post war Britain because of his homosexuality.

The cast is spectacular.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays the main character. Embodying the lonesome, scientific genius is difficult for it means being able to project a rich internal life, more his innermost thoughts and feelings and less his actions. Cumberbatch does that perfectly. Joan Clarke is played by the talented Keira Knightley and even Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) makes an appearance.

The internal life of the bright mathematician is not only made visible through Cumberbatch’s amazing acting skills but also through the music, composed by Alexandre Desplat. With an interesting mélange of piano and technical sounds produced by machines, it succeeds in expressing both the human and the mechanical mind. If mathematics could be captured in music this would perhaps be it. Additionally, this soundtrack is perfect as background music when solving, or attempting to solve, calculus problems.  

As for the topics touched by the movie, they definitely challenge its viewers intellectually.

“-Could machines ever think the way human beings do? […]

-The problem is, you are asking a stupid question. Of course machines can’t think as people do. A machine is different from a person, hence they think differently. The interesting question is, just because something thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking?” 

The aforementioned philosophical question is now maybe more relevant than ever before. Answering it not only shapes our ethical values, but also the way in which we envision evolution and coexistence with technology. This is a symbiosis that now needs to be carefully planned out, defining both its development potential and its boundaries. What do we want to achieve through our creations? Do we hope to challenge our ephemerality? Will this deepen the existing socio-economic inequalities?

 Apart from this quandary, the movie also captures the deeply rooted homophobia of the 20th century and the scars it leaves on people most affected by it. It makes you think about our flawed standards of what truly makes a person valuable. 

Alan Turing did not get the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. Partly because of his sexual orientation, partly because of the fact that his achievements during the Second World War have been kept secret for almost 50 years. Regardless of the admiration he now receives, this will sadly never make up for the struggles he had to face and for the life he had to endure.

 Undoubtably, if it were not for Alan Turing, computers would maybe not have been so evolved and we would not have been able to create this virtual world we now take for granted. More importantly, you would not have been able to open a streaming service and watch a movie. Speaking of movies. I heard “The Imitation Game” was good, you might want to give it a try.