Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ode to Alan Turing

In this week of announcements in the US about evolving views concerning human sexual preferences, it seems fit to offer a second poem (see also May 9) honoring British code-breaker and computer scientist, Alan Turing (1912-1942).  Here is "Ode to Alan Turing"  by Saskatchewan poet, Mari-Lou Rowley

Ode to Alan Turing     by Mari-Lou Rowley

Unfamiliar smells of coriander, turmeric, cinnamon
what they brought back from that dark place,
what they left you to face, alone
with only numbers,
what counted, only numbers could decide

“Whether to move to the left, move to the right, or stay in place.”

proof or falsity,
statements of love or hate.
What tables of behaviour, symbols, squares
lights in front of eyes closed tight behind tight fists.

“In order for an animated machine to compute the world
you need real numbers in binary form.”

Someone has to make a decision procedure
oh oh oh one one one oh one oh one
dot oh one dot oh oh one one

Oh Cambridge prestige and diction
Oh Princeton money, Oh mock Goths,
Oh slippery climb up the tower
Oh Dot Dot Oh

One war, one woman, one Enigma
the probability of failing her, of falling
through the cracks, of cracking the code.

Hide the Queen’s medal in a toolbox. Move to the next square.

Oh computable numbers, your subjects and predicates
their sequence of symbols, machine sung:


No general process for determining whether a given father
is satisfactory or not.

“The behaviour of the computer at any moment is determined
by the symbols which he is observing,
and his “state of mind” at that moment.”

Certain codes and mannerisms
immediately recognizable,
the flick of wrist
inflection of voice
turn of head
colour of scarf
cut of suit.

“The state of mind of the computer 
corresponds to an m-configuration.”

M for machine, m for mother, m for man --
the room scanned
glance exchanged
meeting arranged

compatible numbers converge computably
mutable, mutual programming
a condition of functions and definitions.

“Turing believes that machines think.
Turing lies with men.
Therefore machines do not think.”
Suppose a cog in the wheel, a
tape in the machine, a bug
on the wall.
Suppose his strong hands, dark hair
thick vowels, hard thighs.
Suppose mutual compatible increasing continuous
satisfying sighs.

Suppose someone is listening.

     I found Rowley's ode in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics (Volume 1, Issue 2) as part of a collection entitled "NumenRology: A Poetic Exploration of the Lives and Work of Famous Mathematicians."  Rowley's JHM collection also includes "On Diophantus Arithmetica," (see 5 March posting) and "On Euclid's Book VII -- Elementary Number Theory: Proposition 8."  Rowley used "poetic license" when she asserted (as an end-note in the JHM publication) that the right-justified portions of text are from Turing’s 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” published in 1937 in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society.  Some, but not all, of the quotes are in the spirit of the cited article. 
     An April 22 article in the Washington Post  describes some of the teaching-math activities in computer labs at Virginia Tech and includes a comment that, in addition to being helpful with mathematical instruction, "Computer-led lessons show promise for remedial English instruction and perhaps foreign language . . . [but]  Machines will never replace humans in poetry seminars."  Indeed?! This remark turns me once again to the question posed by Turing's test:  can a machine behave like a human being? 

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