Autism and war crimes: Turing's moral character in The Imitation Game

Last night I attended a packed screening of The Imitation Game. My thoughts on the movie are below, but tl;dr: I thought the film was great. If you have any interest in mathematics, cryptography, or the history of computing you will love this film. But this isn't just a movie for nerds. The drama of the wartime setting and the arresting performance from Cumberbatch make this film entertaining and accessible to almost everyone-- despite the fact that it's a period war drama with almost no action or romance and doesn't pass the Bechdel test.

Of course, as a philosopher I have questions and criticisms. But don't let that confuse you: go see this film. Turning history's intellectual heroes into media's popular heroes is a trend I'd like to reinforce. 

Turing's story is timely and central for understanding the development of our world. I'm happy to see his work receive the publicity and recognition it deserves. Turing is something of a hero of mine; I spent half my dissertation wrestling with his thoughts on artificial intelligence, and I've found a way to work him in to just about every class I've taught for the last decade. I know many others feel just as passionately (or more!) about his life and work. I have been looking forward to this film for a long time and my expectations were high. I was not disappointed. The Oscar buzz around this film is completely appropriate.

Spoilers will obviously follow. There are minor inaccuracies in the film: Knightley mispronounces Euler's name; Turing's paper is titled "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", not "The Imitation Game"; the Polish bombe machine was eventually named Victory, never Christopher. But I'm not so interested in that sort of critique. 

I'd instead like to talk about two subtle but important themes in the film: first, Turing's eccentric behavior is depicted in such a way as to strongly suggest that he was on the autism spectrum. Second, the film raises issues of Turing's involvement and moral culpability in the war that are not resolved. Although I think the film (in both the script and Cumberbatch's performance) successfully incorporate these themes into a convincing character, I'm not sure how much this character reflects on the historical Turing. 

Just to be clear, there's more to the movie than what I'm focusing on here, and in any case I'm not the kind of movie snob that would complain about embellishing the drama a bit for the screen. But I was already pretty familiar with the story of Turing before seeing the film, and these two themes stood out as deserving further investigation.

Turing and Autism

The film shows Turing both as a child and an adult being told that he's different from other people, and that these differences make him unique and capable of doing extraordinary things. Turing explicitly synthesizes this lesson during the film's very brief discussion of artificial intelligence. In the course of a police interrogation, Turing argues that we talk of "thinking" in a way that admits of great differences between thinkers and may even extend to the thinking performed by copper wire and steel. I'll talk more about this scene at the end. The central lesson of the scene, that Turing is different from 'normal' people, is also found in the repeating and somewhat clunky motto of the film: "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine." The phrase functions like a "with great power comes great responsibility' line in the Turing origin mythology portrayed the film, told to him as a child and repeated by him to Knightley's Clarke as an adult. The superheroic set up of Turing's genius makes his untimely end all the more tragic. 

But Turing's abilities aren't merely depicted as extraordinary or eccentric, they are depicted as explicitly cognitively atypical. As a child Turing is shown obsessively separating his peas and carrots into neat piles, a behavior for which he is bullied by his peers. He avoids eye contact and refuses to engage in pleasantries with his colleagues, resulting in many awkward social situations. He has few friends and has difficulty making friends. He doesn't get jokes. He works obsessively and in isolation, seeming to care more for his machines than his own health. He stutters frequently, especially when he gets passionate. I was watching the movie with a psychologist who agreed that the performance in the film was suggestive of autism spectrum behaviors. 

I had never considered whether Turing was autistic before the film. Of course autism was not diagnosed in Turing's time, but some research online shows that several people have attempted retrospective diagnoses of Turing. For instance, this book devotes a chapter to Turing as a case of Asperger SyndromeThis article in the Guardian from 2012 about Turing's childhood and family life states very matter-of-factly that Turing would have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome today. We should be clear that since the DSM-5 Asperger Syndrome has been folded into the autism spectrum, so no one is being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome after 2013. In any case, both sources seem rather light on evidence supporting the diagnoses, drawing the conclusion simply from Turing's somewhat eccentric habits and interest in mathematics. 

The best resource I found on Turing and Autism was this blog post, which discusses an article published in a psychology journal in 2003 doing a retrospective diagnosis from biographical details of Turing's life. The post lists the evidence cited in support in that paper. Unfortunately I don't have full academic superpowers and can't find a copy of the original article. But if the post is accurate, the case seems rather thin and doesn't fully support the portrayal Cumberbatch provides. I'm compelled to believe the conclusion of the blog post:
The difficulty with making historical diagnoses is that there's no opportunity to ask further, more targeted questions. What happened if Turing didn't get his nightly apple? Did it bother him, or did he eat some other fruit?
A proper diagnostic interview might uncover further evidence that would provide a more compelling and watertight case for diagnosis. Even so, Turing's case highlights the subjective nature of diagnosis. This is particularly true around the edges of the autism spectrum where, as Lorna Wing put it, Asperger syndrome "shades into eccentric normality".
Attempts to diagnose Turing arguably reveal more about our current fuzzy concepts of autism than they do about Turing the man. And they make plain why we're still a long way from understanding the enigma that is autism.

If the diagnosis of autism is questionable of the historical Turing, it raises some issues about the performance in the film. Turing's social isolation in particular seems overplayed. The historical Turing had a decidedly more active social and family life, as evidenced by, for instance, his letter to a friend in distress or the memoir from his brother. Turing was undoubtedly unique and eccentric, but the film's presentation of Turing as socially and intellectually isolated and autistic is stronger than the historical record seems to support. 

In Cumberbatch's hands, Turing's isolation manifests as a speech impediment and an apparent inability to grasp the basic dynamics of human engagement. He requires simple instruction and repeated correction from colleagues in order to navigate a social spaceA few times in the film he seems incredibly savvy about people's intentions and opinions, as when he convinces Knightley to come to Blechtley. But most of his actions are insensitive to the social context and the feelings of others. At several points he justifies an apparently cruel decision by saying that it is "the only logical choice", making him sound more Vulcan than human. And for this behavior, he's called a "monster", "inhuman", and a "fragile narcissist" by his only friends in the film.

In other words, the film directly ties Turing's asocial behavior to his moral character. Thus, presenting Turing as autistic has an influence in how we interpret that character. His portrayal in the film is of someone who is coldly rational, calculating with complete emotional detachment to anything besides his machines. Since the movie depicts him as almost single-handedly defeating the Nazis he doesn't come off as an evil person. Indeed, the movie credits him for potentially saving 14 million lives and two more years of war. In his darkest depression at the end of the film, the camera still looks up to him, and the narrative turns on the slightest of his gestures. He's clearly presented as a hero whose actions hold great power and ultimately result in the greater good. 

Nevertheless, the film's Turing comes off as principled to a fault, rational to the point of compromising the respect and support of his colleagues. He is recognized by his closest friends as capable of extreme cruelty for the sake of his pet projects. Which brings me to the second theme.

Turing and War

When he first arrives at Bletchley, Turing tells the Commander that he's "agnostic about violence". In fact, Turing repeats a theory of violence several times in the film: "Humans find violence deeply satisfying." This is not idle philosophy; the insight is shown has having direct utility in Turing's life. This is how Turing explains both his childhood bullying and the techniques he used to survive it. This is also how he rationalizes the violence done to him and his machine by his skeptical colleagues and superiors at Bletchley. Turing is the film's hero, but his relationship to violence makes his character complex and challenging. 

It bears repeating: this film is a period war drama. The enemy in the film is identified explicitly as time, and is represented occasionally by the relentless onslaught of the Nazi war machine. Turing's triumphant victory is in cracking the enigma code at Bletchley, where the heart of the movie lies. Some time in the film is spent with Turing as a boy, and the film ends tragically, as does Turing's life, with his persecution by an intolerant culture. So there is lots of room to reflect on the cruel treatment he and other gay men experienced at the time. Coupled with Clarke's struggle to be taken seriously as a brilliant female mathematician, the film makes a powerful statement on the deep hostility in our culture towards gender and sexual identity.

But the central drama of the story is not Turing's sexuality or his tragic end, it is about Turing's involvement in the war. Turing's character in the film is depicted as nearly asexual, more interested in math than interpersonal relationships. Although Turing does identify as gay, his sexuality is almost completely absent from the film. That this character would have the street smarts or physical drive to seek out a prostitute is outside the scope of the film and this gives us little room for evaluating Turing's character in this action. This film does not put Turing's sexuality on trial, nor should it have, but it leaves us with ultimately a very narrow slice of the life of this complex human being. 

Similarly, although Turing is shown in the grips of a deep depression at the end of the film, he is never depicted as explicitly suicidal. There are no representations of him even contemplating suicide, much less acting it out. His one encounter cleaning an arsenic, the chemical that will eventually take his life, shows him taking at least basic safety precautions and instructing others to do the same. Although the reasons for his depression are made clear, we're not given any insight into his decision in taking his own life. So the film also restricts us from using this behavior to evaluate Turing's character. 

Instead, we're left only with Turing's relationship with his wartime colleagues in the context of the British blockage on which to evaluate his character. The Guardian recently ran an article complaining that the film portrays Turing as a traitor by concealing the presence of known Soviet spies at Bletchley. I think the complaint is kind of silly; at best, the film shows Turing being caught up in much larger political battles than were occurring at Bletchley. But the responsibility for the spy doesn't seem to fall on Turing in the film. Instead, it falls on the mysterious MI-6 agent, who claims to have deliberately placed the spy in Turing's working group. It's not clear from the film that a more radically patriotic Turing would have done any different. 

My reaction was almost the opposite: the film shows Turing as more capable of callously engaging in strategic militaristic thinking than I would have expected. Historically, Turing participated in the anti-war movement but was never radicalized, and eventually came to work in support of the war at Bletchley Park. In the film, Turing's choice to work at Bletchley was almost entirely self-serving: it gave him the chance to work on the hardest cryptographic puzzle around and the opportunity to fund the construction of his universal computing machine. Turing's "agnosticism" towards violence allows him to become a wartime opportunist, convincing the military to fund his pet science project. In the end Turing was right and his computer helped win the war, but at no time in the film does Turing appeal to such consequentialist reasoning to justify his actions. 

On the contrary, his actions are always justified by what is "logical", usually expressed in stuttering and exasperated tones strongly suggestive of autism. Two actions in particular demonstrate this aspect of his moral character, and in both cases he is called an inhuman monster and is physically assaulted for the position he defends. 

The first happens shortly after the team cracks the Enigma code. Using freshly decoded messaged they build a map of all the German and British boats, and quickly deduce that the Germans are planning an attack on a civilian convoy populated by family members of Turing's own team. Turing nevertheless prevents them from alerting the military authorities by reasoning that if they seem to anticipate the German threat that their success at cracking Enigma would have been revealed. His team pleads with him about the civilians on the ships, but Turing ignores their pleas. He argues that it would waste years of work to expose their advantage without gaining the strategic advantage. He even calls directly for the Germans to sink the ships, for the sake of his work. For this he is punched in the face, though his colleagues eventually and begrudgingly come to agree with his view. 

This action does have historical basis; the British used the intelligence from Blechtley strategically, and Turing had significant influence over the process. The film shows Turing single-handedly making significant and costly tactical military decisions, and I'm not sure how accurate that is. But Turing was certainly an active agent in the war machine, and this certainly deserves discussion in treating him like a hero. During his interrogation Turing asks, "Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?" The attentive audience, actively calculating permutations, can't help but hear: "Am I a war criminal?" Presenting a hero in this light certainly makes this film more challenging than it might first appear. 

It is worth noting that Turing's counterpart in the States, John von Neumann, was actively working on the Manhattan Project at the time. The point being made subtly but distinctly by the film is that this history of computing is intimately tied to the history of warfare in the twentieth century. Given the aggressive use of robotics and artificial intelligence by the military today, the film provides an important opportunity for the computer science community to reflect on its continued relationship to the war machine. 

The second of Turing's questionable moral actions occurs later on in the film. After Turing learns of the infiltration of spies at Bletchley and the risks to himself and Clarke, Turing confesses to his fianceĆ© about his sexual orientation. He calls off the engagement and urges her to leave Bletchley. Clarke refuses. She says their relationship is different and she likes it just as it is. She says that they both care about each other in their own way, and that's all that matters to her. Turing responds that in fact he doesn't care about her, and that he was only using her to help crack Enigma. He essentially confirms himself to be the monster they always thought him to be. For this act of cruelty he is again slapped in the face. 

The film suggests we read this exchange as if Turing is lying to Clarke to persuade her to leave. At his engagement party Turing admits to caring for Clarke, and not much about their relationship had changed besides the increasing pressure at Blechtley. The implication is that Turing cares so deeply for Clarke that he's willing to suffer through his cruel actions towards her for her own safety and well-being. In an earlier scene in the film Turing tries to brush off a police investigation through a similar kind of misdirection. 

But this reading of the film would require interpreting Turing as being deeply emotionally invested in his relationships and engaged in a kind of inartful social deception to achieve these ends, and this reading sits uncomfortably with the portrayal of Turing as autistic and cognitively incapable of engaging in such a complex social dance. In other words, we'd have to imagine that Turing is secretly a social genius that is merely manipulating is social environment by imitating an emotional cripple. 

The more straightforward reading of his action is that Turing wanted Clarke gone, and he was willing to be cruel to achieve his ends, regardless of how it made her feel. This reading fits with Turing's coldly calculating character and his opportunistic use of military resources, but it leaves Turing looking like exactly the inhuman monster his friends considered him to be. This also seems to be the only reading of Turing's character compatible with his breakdown at the end of the film, where his emotional isolation seems beyond imitation. 

The result is a difficult and complex portrayal of Turing's moral character, one that is somewhat buried under the more superheroic lionizing frame adopted by the film. Since some tech elite that were given advanced private screenings, we might read the moral of the film cynically as follows: give the eccentric geniuses what they want, even if you think they are doing something monstrous and cruel, because they know better than everyone else and in the end they'll be right. One can see why this message would ring loudly in Silicon Valley. 

I think the more responsible reading of the film is that cruelty and violence are everywhere, even in our heroes. The British government defeating the Nazis is cause for celebration, but that same institution can destroy its most precious intellectual asset for no reason at all. Similarly, Turing can save millions of lives and bring an end to a world war, but will callously insult and alienate his friends and colleagues in the process. 

And this violence has no resolution or ultimate explanation, as evidenced by Turing's childhood friend Christopher dying from an illness without any emotional closure. Turing's death likewise feels meaningless and absurd, a senseless waste. Turing makes several atheistic claims in the film, most notably "Was I God? No. Because God didn't win the war. We did." But of course that same "we" caused the war, and fought in it, and profited from it. Turing's heroism arises not from overcoming the tragedy of war but instead from participating directly in it. Here lies tragedy, but here lies glory too

Coda: Fair play for machines

The film's celebration of Turing's life and accomplishments leaves me wanting to see more. I'd love to see Cumberbatch reprise the role of Turing in a live-action Logicomix, for instance. But I'd also like to see a more direct discussion of Turing's views on artificial intelligence. The brief interrogation scene I think captures the heart of Turing's position, that thinking can take many interesting forms, despite our biases against apparent differences. Although I feel that the portrayal of Turing as autistic was too strong in the film, I think it ultimately works to make the same point quite effectively. However, this lesson is only obliquely related to the question of thinking machines, and audiences may not fully appreciate how strongly Turing understood how the two come together. 

The issue of AI comes up in another form in the film, through Turing's relationship with Christopher, his bombe machine. Turing names the machine after his boyhood friend, and attributes to it agency and intelligence at many points in the film. His breakdown at the end of the film is triggered by the thought of the authorities confiscating the machine. Reaching towards Christopher, he cries: "I don't want to be alone".

The behavior again complicates the historical Turing's views on thinking machines. There's a strand of commentary on Turing's imitation game that focuses on the gendered nature of the original imitation game. On this reading, Turing's discussion says more about his struggle with his own sexual identity than anything about the abilities of machines. The performance in the film strongly corroborates this reading, suggesting that his attachment to machines was more a product of his compromised psychological state than any real attribute of the machine. Christopher the Bombe machine doesn't do anything resembling human intelligence. Whatever personality it acquires in the film is entirely a reflection of Turing. 

If Turing's attachment to his machines is a product of autism, it casts a skeptical light on his conclusion that machines can think, since it appears merely to be the result of his warped brain, and suggests nothing of the attributes of machines themselves. Turing might have been a genius and a hero, but according to the film he was also a pretentious asocial jerk. If he's urging "fair play for machines", that's just another eccentricity we don't have to take seriously. 

I think this reading would be incredibly unfortunate, given the theoretical centrality with which Turing treated the concept of fair play. After Turing was arrested, he sent a letter to a friend describing his distress:
I'm afraid that the following syllogism may be used by some in the future.
Turing believes machines thinkTuring lies with menTherefore machines do not think
In this letter, Turing is explicitly worried that people will appeal to facts from his personal life and use them as evidence for disbelieving his conclusions about thinking machines. Surely Turing's sexuality is no cause for disbelieving his conclusions, and the same should be said about autism as well, should we accept the film's portrayal. 

Turing's work on artificial intelligence was done in the late 40's, with Computing Machinery and Intelligence being published in 1950, well before his eventual arrest and psychological breakdown. In other words, Turing's work on AI comes at the height of his intellectual powers and public visibility. The fact that a war hero would return from solving the hardest problem in the world and immediately devote his efforts to defending the social status of thinking machines, knowing full well that he would face overwhelming popular disagreement for at least another fifty years, I think says a lot about his ethical character and the conviction of his beliefs. 

Showing Turing as accepting of cognitive diversity is a nice bow to tie on an ethically complicated character in this short film. But as a culture we have yet to fully process the overwhelming influence that Turing has had on the dynamics and values that shape the modern world. I hope that Turing's story is one that we continue to tell. 

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