Sunday, September 9, 2012

Minerva's Den and Alan Turing

Bioshock 2
System: Xbox 360
Developer: 2K Games
NA Release: February 2010

Part of what makes BioShock such an engaging series is the way it incorporates real-world concepts and philosophies into its ruined utopian fishbowl. The world is a steampunk-like fantasy, but the very human ideas behind its creation and operation resonate with this vague sense of reality—giving Rapture a “what if” kind of feeling that not many other games come close to or even intend to.

So through what better means can one tie in the theories of mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing?

Alan Turing
Turing's work with technology and his powerful role in history almost feel tailor-made for the world of BioShock. During World War II, Turing and his team worked for Britain under top secret conditions, creating methods and machines to crack the Germans' complex Enigma cipher and turning the tides of war intelligence toward the Allies' favor. For Rapture, which canon says was established in the '40s, Turing's accomplishments would fit in well among the man-made marvels upon which the underwater city's purposes and ideals were inspired.

“Minerva's Den,” a DLC add-on story to BioShock 2, ferries in what may be Turing's most well-known contribution to computer science. The story centers around Charles Milton Porter, a fictional character who worked with Turing in besting the Enigma. Unfortunately, he returns to London after his work to find his wife, Pearl, died in the bombings. A broken man, he ends up in Rapture and creates “The Thinker,” a supercomputer that serves multiple purposes, the most important being the regulation of life functions in the city.

Porter sees another purpose with the computing power he has under his control and thinks to the ideas of his former partner in Britain—specifically, the Turing Test. Turing was fascinated with the concept that a computer could be programmed to “think” like a human. He considered a test in which both a real human and a computer would respond to questions. If another human could not identify which responses came from the computer, it would be considered able to “think” equally to a living being.

C. M. Porter
You might be able to see where this is going. Porter believes he can beat the Turing test, and with this ability play a sort of futuristic Pygmalion, recreating the essence of his late wife. The events surrounding this and what direction the writers take it are something I will leave to be discovered, but I will say it is quite amazing. The character of Porter and the voice acting that brings him to life are superb.

People are still working with artificial intelligence, trying to create a true “thinking” machine, and many are disappointed with the progress so far. But what we will want to do with such programmed personalities and how our human natures will react with them are things that may need more consideration. The ways the world of BioShock brings cold, calculated logic and the human element into constant collision with each other lends itself surprisingly well toward such philosophical thought.

One other way in which Turing and Rapture have some odd similarity: in 1952, it was found that Turing was homosexual, a crime in Britain at that time. He chose “treatment” over incarceration, and was subjected to large injections of synthetic estrogen to kill his libido, chemically castrating him. People who had different ideologies were criminalized and “processed” in Rapture, too.

Of course, at the end of the day, Rapture is the rendering of programmed computers. What happened to Turing was the actions of man.

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