Cognitive Computing Comes to the Silver Screen

Discover the backstory of the Turing machine’s portrayal in cracking enemy communications during World War II

Marketing Program Manager for Data Warehousing, IBM

To pull off the first hack, Alan Turing had to first invent the computer. The then 27-year-old, world-class mathematician and cryptanalyst led Great Britain’s World War II cryptanalysis effort that focused on German naval communications. Starting in 1939, Germany was winning the battle of the Atlantic by sinking Allied convoy supply vessels that were bound for Great Britain. The Germans’ blockade battle tactics were relayed by the Enigma machine, a state-of-the-art encrypting device. In that day and age, its messages were thought to be unbreakable.

Turing’s task was simple: find the Enigma key, which was changed daily, from “159 million million million”—159 quintillion—combinations. And the only thing at stake was Great Britain’s survival and whether the Axis militaries or the Allies would prevail in World War II. The November 2014 release of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, a major motion picture based on the book, Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges (Princeton University Press, 2014), details the life of the foremost pioneer in computing history.

The key to Turing’s breakthrough was how he approached the problem at hand. He realized that finding the key from 1.5920 possible combinations was impossible even with a task force comprised of some of the best and brightest human minds on the planet. Turing determined that the only way to beat the Enigma machine was by creating another machine—a machine barely conceptualized and never built, but capable of being repurposed for unscrambling each day’s naval communications from the Germans. Turing’s idea was essentially a machine not unlike the computer on which everyone now processes daily tasks.

Depicting the Turing machine

Turing managed to wrangle GBP100,000—approximately GBP5,800,000, or USD8,824,000 in today’s economy—from his British Admiralty sponsors to move forward with the decrypting project. To build the replica of Turing’s machine, the 2014 movie production budget was GBP30,000—or approximately USD46,000. While the original had to absolutely function to design specifications, the movie’s machine had only to be convincingly realistic. And to be realistic for the viewing audience, the dozens of mechanical rotors had to spin, sequence in turn, and make noise much like the first computing machine.

The movie’s designers embellished the machine a bit by using bright red electrical wiring to illustrate the effect of a living being with blood-carrying arteries. The machine had to flex to the movie’s narrative and had to be viewable as a work in progress as the story unfolded. The modern-day engineers settled on Adobe Illustrator with a computer-aided design (CAD) plug-in for the design software used to create their Turing machine. This package allowed for texture, light, and visual qualities that they judged to be better than other CAD programs.*

Stealing the show

While Benedict Cumberbatch—as Alan Turing—and Keira Knightley—as Joan Clarke—head the human cast of The Imitation Game, a case could be made for nominating the Turing machine as best supporting actor. The machine’s noisy computing motions elevated the tension that the British project team was under to deliver results. And with each daily failure, the team unceremoniously powered down their machine. Debugging, soul searching, and facing defeat, the British team caught a break when they observed some German operational sloppiness that was akin to using weak passwords today.

The movie version of this historical perspective demonstrated the interaction of machine and humans, as the team reprogrammed the Turing machine by changing cables and reconfiguring ports. Based on its observations from German transmissions, Turing’s team developed a new program that proved to be the shortcut needed to break the seemingly unbreakable Enigma code.

As a result, Turing paved the way for a new way of thinking. He theorized that people might be able to create an entity that imitates the thought processes and cognitive powers of humans. The movie’s version of these events re-created the computer’s incubating environment and captured the pressure on Turing’s team to deliver on time and on budget. In essence, The Imitation Game documented mathematicians morphing into computer scientists, ushering in the computing era, and changing the world forever.

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*How Designers Recreated Alan Turing’s Code-Breaking Computer for Imitation Game,” by Angela Watercutter,, November, 2014.