Sunday 6 September 2009

Sua Culpa

I am sorry to announce that the 16:32 First Capital Connect service to Brighton has been delayed by 27 minutes.

Whilst other travellers may mutter in annoyance at such announcements, making it clear to all around them, if clarity were needed, that actually they had been hoping the train would arrive on time, my feelings are usually directed more towards a profound sense of puzzlement and unease.

The announcement is, as is usual these days, recorded – or not exactly recorded, but assembled from recorded fragments. I worked on a similar system once myself, for an Air Traffic Control simulator, recording the voices of various of my colleagues as they read from prepared scripts designed to encompass all the possible air-traffic-related sentences that could ever be uttered. Be careful, if you ever do such a thing for yourself, to take note of the difference in intonation of the word 'zero' in the phrases 'Turn left heading three five zero' and 'Turn left heading three zero five'.

But the upshot is, both in Air Traffic Control and on the railways, that though the words are spoken with the voice of a person, the meaning is formulated by the computer that splices the fragments together. It's quite the opposite situation from where a person, such as Professor Stephen Hawking, uses a speech synthesizer. There the voice is a machine, but the thought is human. On the platform, the human voice hides the synthetic concept.

But here's the cause of my unease. When the announcement is made, who is it that is sorry? It can't be the computer, they're not capable of the emotion – believe me, I've worked with them for years and it just doesn't happen. So is it the owner of the voice that feels the sorrow? Is there an actor sitting at home in front of Deal or No Deal who suddenly feels a little pulse of sadness in his heart as his voice, miles away and recorded years before, expresses a sentiment which some supernatural power forces the man himself to feel? Do you perhaps know someone – someone with a clear, resonant voice – who, once in a while, especially during rush hour, gazes wistfully into the distances as if remembering some old love from whom he has long been parted.

It seems unlikely. The fact is that no one is sorry about the delay to the train – it cannot be the computer and it cannot be the actor, and no one else is even attempting to apologize. If the announcement were to be phrased 'We are sorry ...' then things would be different, but that would be to suggest that First Capital Connect actually were sorry, and that would never do.

And so to Alan Turing, and the petition asking the Prime Minister to apologize for Turing's prosecution for homosexuality.

I thought about this long and hard – and, for what little it's worth, I'm not going to put my name to the petition.

Now I don't imagine that there are many people more in awe of Turing than I am, though I won't wax lyrical here on his contributions to mathematics, computing, cryptanalysis and war-winning. He's probably the second greatest mathematician in British history (behind Newton) and posterity may well promote him to the top of the rankings. But when it comes to being apologized to for his treatment as a homosexual, what's so special about Alan Turing?

The freedom to go to bed with any consenting adult (or adults) of either sex and get down to whatever the two (or three) of you fancy is not an indulgence that's handed out as a reward for helping to defeat the Nazi onslaught. It's generally agreed (though a few still argue the point) that it's a fundamental human right. It's not for Gordon Brown to look through the history books and select those homosexuals who made a significant contribution to this country (and God knows, there are enough) and apologize only to them. Any apology should be to all those who were persecuted for their sexuality, even if they never made any significant contribution to the Entscheidungsproblem – even if they never mastered their times tables.

But even then, Gordon Brown should not make the apology, any more than he should apologize for the delays to the 16:32 to Brighton. It really isn't his fault. He can't apologize for what happened in 1952, any more than he can take credit for the 1967 act that legalized homosexuality (though he was part of the government that later equalized the age of consent). If anyone is going to say sorry, it should be those who were actually involved – those of them who are still alive – the policemen, politicians, lawyers, judges and psychiatrists who directly or indirectly persecuted Turing and drove him to suicide. An apology from Gordon Brown for something he didn't do would be meaningless, a computerized statement from a front man who cannot – and should not – feel any shadow of the guilt which his words express. And let's face it, Gordon Brown really does have so much that he should apologize for, from the economy, to the war, to the other war. Or is he hoping that in sixty years time there'll be a petition to his successor that they should apologise for his faults? He should not be let off the hook like that in future, and his predecessors should not be let off the hook by him now.

On the other hand, there is also the suggestion going round that Alan Turing should be given a posthumous knighthood, and when there's a petition for that, I'll gladly sign it.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your arguments on Turing etc, but am reminded by your comments on "computer(s)...not capable of emotion" about the conference I went to on Friday: emotion is everything these days! e.g. this talk, we have to design in emotional responses for our users now.