The Imitation Game: Morality and Statistics

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The Imitation Game

A crucial moment occurs in The Imitation Game when Alan Turing and his team, having finally broken the Enigma code, for the first time decode a series of German communications. As the communications are current naval instructions, the team can plot the movement of warships. They realise that they are the only five people in the world who know the exact location of every ship in the North Atlantic. They have acquired a God-like omniscience.

Let’s pause at this moment. It is the beginning of the modern world. Today anyone with a computer or halfway decent smartphone can log on to and see the current position of any merchant ship in the world. It would be scary if it was not so much fun. Computers – of which Turing’s decoding machine, ‘Christopher’, is the direct ancestor – have made us all omniscient.

But it is the next moment in the film that is even more crucial. The code breakers realise that a fleet of German U-boats is about to attack an allied convoy. Turing and his team can easily prevent the attack and save allied lives. It is, at least in the film, Turing who realises that they can, in fact, do nothing. To prevent the attack would give away the fact that Enigma is broken, and lead to its replacement by an even more obscure code within a few days. Their omniscience is accompanied by a strange impotence. Worse, omniscience leads to a seemingly horrendous moral culpability.

The team must stand by, and allow the German U-boat attack to happen. Indeed, in the drama of the film, they must stand by, even knowing that a cousin of one of the team is on a threatened allied ship. It is now the stuff of folklore that the bombing of Coventry was known about in advance, thanks to the breaking of Enigma, but had to be allowed to happen.

Turing’s Christopher is part of broader technological and cultural change. Turing’s work does not simply help to bring about the world of digital knowledge. It already occurs in a world increasingly aware of the importance of statistics. Indeed, UK government statistical services had largely been set up during the First World War, as Winston Churchill and others recognised our inability to fight effectively without good statistics.

According to the film, Turing turns to statistics and probability in order to solve the problem of how to use intercepted and decoded German communications. Statistics is at once part of the problem and part of the solution.

The information that Turing acquires does not quite yield omniscience. When the U-boats attack we know that a large proportion of the crews may die. But we do not know that everyone will die. Perhaps the cousin survived. At a later point in the film, we briefly see the reports of statisticians. They note the probability of a certain number of deaths. But never can we know which particular people will die. Statistical prediction gives numbers, not names.

But, if statistics yield a certain uncertainty, statistical analyses also came to the allies’ aid. The information garnered from decoded communication could be used selectively, Turing asserts, if the German attacks that the allies chose to prevent could be made to seem to be a mere matter of chance. A careful statistical analysis could simulate chance, and thus conceal the underlying strategy (and all importantly, the underlying knowledge of Enigma).

The film addresses, with some profundity, the resultant tension between cold reason and hot emotion. Let’s look again that scene of the first successful decoding of German communications. Tuning’s colleagues turn on him, passionately and indeed violently, for his cold rational recognition that they could not interfere in the U-boat attack. Our passions tell us to help, to prevent immediate death and suffering, especially if one of those under threat is a blood relative or friend.

Tuning’s reason took a longer view. He performs what philosopher’s call a utilitarian calculation. One should, on the utilitarian account, weigh amounts of suffering and pleasure, indifferent as to who suffers or when the suffering will happen. It is net pleasure that matters, and the suffering that does occur disappears into the moral calculus. For Turing, the objective is to win the war, and thus the convoy, or Coventry, must be sacrificed.

The needs of the many, as Mr Spock told us in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, outweigh the needs of the one. But however rational that might be, it is still hard, and especially when we are talking not of one person, but of one convoy or one city. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, at the end of the 18th century, that it was fundamentally wrong to treat a human being merely as a means to an end. Yet that is what the logic of war seemingly demands. The convoy and the city become a means, to be sacrificed, to a greater end. But in this, perhaps, lies a tragedy that has always been at the heart of warfare.

What is in many ways even more significant, and something that is distinctive of the new age that Tuning ushers in, is that Turing and his team, and eventually the whole allied war machine, had to stand by and let allied deaths happen. Here is the strange new sense of both impotence and responsibility that apparent omniscience bequeaths upon us. Only a careful use of statistics, Turing demonstrates, can overcome our impotence. Our sense of moral responsibility could be partially eased by recognising that, in the end, it is the enemy that commits the violence. The German U-boat is the ultimate cause of death. Yet this a rather hollow recompense.

As Turing and his team look at their map of the Atlantic, each ship carefully flagged, they have becomes gods, but of a strange sort. Statistically omniscient, statistically potent, and yet in all the coldness of reason, troubled by their hot, passionate, culpability.

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