Ada Turing Trump

A curious alignment of seemingly unrelated events yesterday galvanized me into action. Hence this monologue.

The disparate triggers were:

  • A celebration of the achievements of Ada Lovelace representing feisty, cerebral, female geeks.
  • A tweet of a friend ‘liking’ an excerpt from Alan Turing’s famous 1950 paper :“The original question, ‘Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion”
  • The continuing, depressing, low-brow discussions about migration (at the Tory conference and in the US).

We’ve been fed much of the dogma that we need youngsters to learn ‘coding’ from an early age, ability at maths is the key to success in today’s world, and we need to address the social conditioning that seems to divert so many technically minded girls from continuing down that line. So the celebration of Ada Lovelace’s achievements made me wonder why? What are the benefits that accrue from a population clued up on maths and au fait with ‘coding’?

Turing’s paper gives us a clue. The world of maths consists of abstract functions that are defined by what they do to different categories of input. We might dupe children for a few years by telling them that multiplication is the same as adding things up a number of times, which works for 7x8, for instance. But very quickly we have to confuse them by producing a different analogy for multiplying irrational number, complex numbers, vectors, matrices etc. The kids that survive this process of obfuscation are the ones that realize that maths is an abstract subject: these are the rules, lets see what happens when we apply them in different situations. The brilliance of Turing was that he could see that the same logic applies to everyday difficult concepts like consciousness.

To Turing the question ‘is this entity sentient?’ should be replaced by the functional one ‘does this entity behave like a sentient one for all the conditions we can think of?’ And that’s the most you can ever say, further philosophical hand wringing is actually meaningless! But the same clear thinking can be applied to many difficult questions that seem to cause inconclusive heated discussion between so-called experts on TV and radio, such as ‘is immigration a good or bad thing?’

Using the functional approach to this question we immediately see that it should be rephrased in a way that makes us look at the process of immigration and the effects it has had historically in as wide a selection of samples as possible. A starting point for this might be to look at the North American land mass which consists almost entirely of immigrants but the conclusion to be drawn from the fact that they have the highest standard of living in the world might be jumping to premature conclusions. An alternative example occurred to me recently while on holiday in Croatia. This is a country that had been down-trodden through centuries of occupation by Venetian, Ottoman and Hungarian empires then suffered alternating waves of extreme ideology involving significant bloodshed. And yet in the last 25 years it has become a reasonably prosperous European country. It has no mineral resources or agricultural potential, just people. But, as we see with countries like Switzerland, people are all it takes to generate wealth, so long as you don’t squander it by fighting wars. Yes, that’s right, more people => more wealth.

Even within the UK we have a scale model that enables us to study the drivers and consequences of immigration: London. For decades (OK centuries) people have moved to London to find work and, as we know, they have created demand for goods in shops, and services, pushed up house prices and added to the wealth and culture of the city. The immigrants to London are better off and the former inhabitants of London are better off. Spend a day in Lowestoft, Middlesbrough, Grantham then London and you will see that immigration creates wealth and improves welfare. QED.