Was the Father of Theoretical Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Autistic? A Review of the Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

Considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing’s idiosyncrasies have led some historians to speculate that he may have had Asperger’s syndrome.

Editor’s Note: Asperger’s syndrome is a previously used diagnosis which was under the autism spectrum. As of 2013, Asperger’s Syndrome became part of a broader category – autism spectrum disorder.

By Nils Skudra

Last night I celebrated my birthday by watching The Imitation Game, a 2014 biographical film about Alan Turing, an eccentric British mathematician who played a pivotal role in aiding the Allied war effort during World War II through his breaking of the Enigma code.

Considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Turing’s idiosyncrasies have led some historians to speculate that he may have had Asperger’s syndrome, and watching the film I felt that its portrayal lent significant plausibility to this theory. Therefore, I decided that this merited a film review in which the case could be made for Turing having Asperger’s syndrome.

The film opens in 1951, when two policemen respond to a reported burglary and enter the home of Alan Turing (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch), whom they encounter cleaning up the wreckage in his lab. Strangely, Turing seems to show little concern for the burglary; he tells the policemen instead not to come any closer since there is undiluted cyanide on the floor and asks them to send for a cleaning lady. Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) finds Turing’s demeanor peculiar but is intrigued by his reputation as a renowned mathematician and cryptanalyst. During his subsequent interrogation of Turing at the police station, he learns about Turing’s wartime experience at Bletchley Park, which thus becomes the central focus of the film.

In 1939, upon the outbreak of World War II, Turing is shown arriving at the Bletchley Radio Station to interview for a position in military intelligence. During his interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), some of Turing’s eccentricities come into play, including an inability to discern jokes; a seeming indifference to the broader political scene; and an inflated self-confidence which Denniston interprets as arrogance. Convinced that Turing has nothing to offer, he prepares to send him away, but when Turing indicates his awareness of the Enigma code machine and the Allies’ goal of decrypting its messages, Denniston decides to hire him as part of the cryptography team tasked with this assignment.

In charge of the project is MI6 agent Steward Menzies (Mark Strong), who emphasizes how critical breaking the Enigma code is to the Allied war effort: Every minute, Allied troops and civilians are killed at sea or in bombing raids due to the Germans’ use of the code to transmit messages. Decrypting the Enigma code, however, is a highly comprehensive and daunting task since there are tens of millions of different settings for the team to decipher.

As Turing and his colleagues work on their assignment, his social awkwardness makes him a figure of ridicule in their eyes. For example, when team member John Cairncross (Allen Leech) tells Turing, “The boys, we’re going to get some lunch,” he receives no response and therefore repeats his statement. When Cairncross clarifies that he was asking Turing if he would like to have lunch with the team, Turing replies, “No, you didn’t, you said you were going to get some lunch.” He then asks what time lunch is, to which Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) answers with frustration, “Christ, Alan, it’s a bleeding sandwich,” but Turing remarks, “Oh, I don’t like sandwiches.” The rest of the team then departs, laughing among themselves about Turing’s eccentric behavior.

Convinced that his colleagues’ efforts at breaking the Enigma code are inadequate, Turing presses Denniston and Menzies to acquire parts for a machine that he believes will accomplish the task. When he is placed in charge of the team, Turing further alienates his colleagues by dismissing two of them, stating bluntly that they are inept at their jobs and thus prompting the others to walk out in disgust. Observing this lack of social tact, Menzies sarcastically remarks, “Popular at school, were you?”

This leads Turing to reminisce about his time in boarding school, when he was severely bullied (even to the point of being nailed under the floorboards) for his eccentricities, which included arranging the carrots and peas on his plate separately because of their divergent colors, another trait often found among individuals with Asperger’s syndrome.

Turing’s sole source of comfort during this time was his friend Christopher Morcom, who encouraged his interest in cryptography and urged him not to feel ashamed of being different, stating, “Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

As Turing configures his machine, which he names Christopher after his school friend, he sends out a crossword puzzle in a newspaper ad, seeking candidates who specialize in problem-solving – those who successfully complete the puzzle are invited for an examination in which they must decrypt a code within six minutes. It is through this endeavor that he meets Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley), a young woman who has studied Turing’s theories at university and is determined to contribute her talents to the war effort, although she is underestimated by men and by her parents on account of her gender. Joan successfully completes the examination and is therefore selected as part of Turing’s team.

Turing soon develops a close friendship with Joan, who encourages him to improve relations with his colleagues, emphasizing that as a woman, she is held to an unfair standard: “I’m a woman in a man’s job, and I don’t have the luxury of being an ass.” This prompts Turing to make an awkward attempt at social outreach, giving apples to the team and telling a joke that none of them can understand. Nonetheless, they develop a more positive attitude toward him, and when Denniston attempts to have Christopher shut down and fire Turing for failing to produce any results, the team stands behind Turing and successfully convinces Denniston to give them one more month to decrypt the Enigma code.

When Joan becomes disenchanted with her work due to pressure from her parents to return home on account of being a single woman working in the company of men, Turing emphatically tells her, “You have an opportunity here to make some actual use of your life!” He then makes an awkward marriage proposal in the hope of convincing Joan to stay, which she happily accepts. However, during a conversation with Cairncross, Turing reveals that he is homosexual and fears that he may not be able to maintain the façade of a “normal” marriage, asking if he should tell Joan the truth. But Cairncross urges him to keep it a secret: “You can’t tell anyone, Alan. It’s illegal. And Denniston is looking for any excuse he can to put you away.”

This exchange sheds light on another contributing factor to Turing’s introverted personality and his lack of intimacy with other people – since homosexual activity was illegal in Britain during the 1940s, he is forced to remain closeted about his sexuality and avoids close interpersonal connection for fear of having this secret exposed.

Turing’s team experiences a change in fortunes when he overhears a conversation in which a female clerk discusses the coded German messages she receives. This gives him the realization that he can program Christopher to decode words that he already knows exist in certain messages.

After recalibrating the machine, he is finally able to break the Enigma code and decrypt a message regarding an impending U-Boat attack on a British supply convoy in the Atlantic. However, he is forced to make a painful calculation based on military necessity, reasoning that they cannot alert the convoy for fear of the Germans discovering that Enigma has been broken – some lives, therefore, must be sacrificed in order to save countless more. Consequently, he and Joan work with Menzies to develop a system to determine how much information the Allies can act on while keeping the breaking of Enigma a secret, resulting in the creation of ULTRA which comes to play a vital role in Allied intelligence over the course of the war.

As the film progresses into the postwar years, Turing comes under scrutiny for his homosexuality when Detective Nock learns that a young man arrested for soliciting sexual favors counted Turing among his male clients. The sympathetic detective asks that he be allowed to interrogate Turing, and their subsequent exchange speaks volumes about the mathematician’s train of thought. When Detective Nock asks if machines can think the same way as people do, Turing elaborates:

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, uh… thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking? Well, we allow for humans to have such divergences from one another. You like strawberries, I hate ice-skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen. What is the point of… different tastes, different… preferences, if not, to say that our brains work differently, that we think differently? And if we can say that about one another, then why can’t we say the same thing for brains… built of copper and wire, steel?

This monologue provides profound commentary about Turing as an individual who has suffered social ostracism because of his eccentricities and his sexual orientation.

It also ties heavily into the question of Turing’s possible Asperger’s diagnosis since people with Asperger’s syndrome are neurodivergent in their thinking, and therefore it is often assumed that they are not thinking or cannot process information properly since they lack an understanding of social cues and sometimes relate information in a monotonous tone.

In a flashback from his childhood, the young Turing tells his friend Christopher, “When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean, they say something else. And you’re expected to just know what they mean. Only I never do. So… How’s that different?” Tying this reflection together with the adult Turing’s monologue, we can find a powerful appeal for understanding on the part of Turing, both as a neurodivergent and as a homosexual individual. Although Detective Nock is moved by Turing’s words, he is ultimately unable to help Turing, who is convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to undergo hormonal therapy, which has the long-term effect of poisoning his body and results in his suicide.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a superb, Oscar-nominated performance as Alan Turing, capturing his brilliance and his idiosyncrasies very convincingly.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal lends considerable support to the theory that Turing had Asperger’s syndrome, which is also backed by primary evidence of the historical Turing’s behavior: His colleague Jack Good recalled that Turing would count the number of times his bicycle pedals went round; “get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand;” and chain “his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.”

Kiera Knightley also delivers a compelling portrayal of Joan Clarke as an empowered and assertive woman who accepts Turing’s eccentricities but refuses to be dissuaded from pursuing her work or from leaving his side as a friend. In capturing the ostracism and censure that Turing suffered on account of his homosexuality, The Imitation Game illustrates how gay men were subjected to legal penalization for their lifestyle during the 1940’s, even though Turing performed valuable service on behalf of the Allied cause in World War II.

The Imitation Game is definitely a worthwhile opportunity for reflection on how society has evolved in its treatment of neurodivergence and homosexuality, as well as the challenges that still confront members of these communities today.

Nils Skudra

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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