Movie Review: The Imitation Game

Hmmm. Let’s see; a movie that has (1) history, (2) technology, (3) math, (4) code-breaking; I’d say that was a must-see. These are all things that interest me greatly. A couple of years ago when we visited the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC I remember a display that showed the “Enigma” machine from Nazi Germany, and I remembered the story of how Alan Turing helped break the code. I knew of Alan Turing from having taught a bit about the history of computing, so this all interested me very much. The trailer for The Imitation Game sounded like it would be a great choice for a holiday afternoon.

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The story was compelling, but when I watch movies that are historical I am always skeptical about the story that I’m being presented with. I feel that it is impossible to tell any historical story without a bias. The problem with historical movies is that, unless you already know the historical material very well, it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.

The part of the story that I feel fairly confident about is that the Nazi’s in WWII invented a code that relied on a machine to encode and decode messages, and that Alan Turing was among the people who worked to break the codes and give the Allies an edge during the war. In the process, they invented the beginnings of modern computers.

I found it fascinating that at one point in the film Turing was asked if machines could “think.” In light of my Dec. 22 post about artificial intelligence (AI), my interest was heightened. Unfortunately, the answer Turing’s character gave was shallow and unsatisfying. {Essentially he talked about machines thinking “differently” than we do, and his answer was all tied up with the film-maker’s agenda of promoting homosexuality. Turing was homosexual, and the filmmaker chose to focus on this aspect of his life.) To equate number-crunching, which computers do extremely well, with “thinking” was and is a huge mistake. The generative, creative ability of human learning is what I have in mind when I imagine the dangers of artificial intelligence. In the 1940’s and 1950’s the huge technological challenge of developing machines that could number-crunch was at the forefront of Turing’s problem-solving. He succeeded in solving that problem, and the computers we have today are the “descendants” of the work that he spearheaded. If any future machines are developed to do the sort of processing that is anything like real, human learning, they will have components and aspects of the technology that Turing worked on then. But there is a clear and marked distinction between what those machines did and what is involved in AI. Philosophers would say that there is a difference in kind rather than a difference in degree. So, I think a more accurate answer from Turing would have been, “No. Of course not. Machines do not think. We do the thinking, and we make machines to carry out our thinking fast and accurately.” That would have been historically accurate for the time.

One thought on “Movie Review: The Imitation Game

  1. I happened to watch this movie on the same night that you did – for all the same reasons!. 🙂 I had the same question throughout – which parts of this movie are historically accurate, and which parts have been added to make it a compelling film? I really want to read a book about the Enigma decryption effort now, both to get more depth on the mathematics and to get a better sense of what is historically accurate.

    Alan Turing did have a significant impact on the general field of computer science. Multiple things I learned in college were credited to his work. The “Turing Test” (called the “Imitation Game” in the movie) is a test he proposed that would tell us when a digital computer-based artificial intelligence could match human intelligence. It actually is historically accurate that Turing thought about whether his concept of digital computers could ever create an artificial intelligence that could think like human beings. His test is interesting in that it takes a more pragmatic approach – it doesn’t focus on whether a computer thinks exactly the “same” as a human being, what matters is whether we can tell the difference between how a computer acts and how a human acts.

    Wikipedia has some interesting articles describing Turing’s writings on artificial intelligence:

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