Wouldn’t you know it? Today marks what would have been Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. This man was not only immensely influential in the development of computer science and cryptanalysis, he is also considered the father of Artificial Intelligence. In fact, words like “algorithm” and “computation” are traced to him, as was the development of the “Turing machine” concept which has helped computer scientists to understand the limits of mechanical computation.
However, his reputation goes far beyond the field of computer science. During World War II, he worked at the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. For a time, he was acting head up Hut 8, the section responsible for breaking the Enigma Code, Germany’s wartime cypher which they used to encrypt all their communications. Were it not for this achievement, the Allies may very well have lost the war.
Especially in the Atlantic, where German U-boats were causing extensive losses in Allied shipping, Turing’s work proved to be the different between victory and defeat. By knowing the disposition and orders of the German fleet, crucial shipments of food, raw material, weapons and troops were able to make it across the Atlantic and keep Britain in the war. Eventually, the broken codes would also help the Allied navy to hunt down and eviscerate Germany’s fleet of subs.
After the war, he worked at the National Physical Laboratory in London, where he created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). He named this in honor of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, a mathematical machine built a century before. This machine was the culmination of theoretical work which began in the mid 30’s and his experiences at Bletchley Park.
In 1948, he joined the Computing Laboratory at Manchester University, where he assisted fellow mathematician and codebreaker Max Newman in the development of the Manchester computers. Their work would eventually yield the world’s first stored-program computer, the world’s first computer to use transistors, and what was the world’s fastest computer at the time of its inauguration (in 1962).
He then switched for a time to emergent and theoretical field of mathematical biology, a science which was concerned with the mathematical representation, treatment and modeling of biological processes, using a variety of applied mathematical techniques and tools. This field has numerous applications in medicine, biology, and the proposed field of biotechnology. As always, the man was on the cutting edge!
In terms of Artificial Intelligence, Turing proposed that it might be possible one day to create a machine that was capable of replicating the same processes as the human mind. The “Turing Test” was a proposed way of testing this hypothesis, whereby a human test subject and computer would both be subjected to the same questions in a blind test. If the person administering the test could not differentiate between the answers that came from a person or a machine, then the machine could be accurately deemed as an “artificial intelligence”.
Tragically, his life ended in 1954, just weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. This was all due to the fact that Turing was gay and did not try to conceal this about himself. In 1952, after years of service with the British government, he was tried as a criminal for “indecency”, homesexuality being considered a crime at the time. In exchange for no jail time, he agreed to submit to female hormone treatment, which is tantamount to “chemical castration”. After a year of enduring this treatment, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide.
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. Between his wartime contributions and ongoing influence in the field of computer science, mathematics, and the emerging fields of biotechnology, and artificial intelligence, Turing has left a lasting legacy. For example, at King’s College in Cambridge, the computer room is named after him in honor of his achievements and that fact that he was a student there in 1931 and a Fellow in 1935.
In Manchester, where Turing spent much of his life, many tributes have been in his honor. In 1994, a stretch of the Manchester city intermediate ring road was named “Alan Turing Way” while a bridge carrying this road was widened and renamed the Alan Turing Bridge. In 2001, a statue of Turing was unveiled in Sackville Park, which commemorates his work towards the end of his life. The statue shows Turing sitting on a bench, strategically located between the University of Manchester and the Canal Street gay village.
The commemorative plaque reads ‘Founder of Computer Science’ as it would appear if encoded by an Enigma machine: ‘IEKYF ROMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ’. Another statue of Turing was unveiled in Bletchley Park in 2007, made out of approximately half a million pieces slate and showing the young Turing studying an Enigma machine. A commemorative English Heritage blue plaque was also mounted outside the house where Turing grew up in Wilmslow, Cheshire.
In literature, Turing’s name and persona have made several appearances. The 1986 play, Breaking the Code, was about Turing’s life, went from London’s West End to Broadway and won three Tony Awards. The 1996, the BBC television network produced a series on his life, starring Derek Jacobi in the leading role. In 2010, actor/playwright Jade Esteban Estrada portrayed Turing in the solo musical, ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 4. And, my personal favorite, he was featured heavily in Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel Cryptonomicon.
Rest in peace Alan Turning. Like many geniuses, you were ahead of your time and destroyed by the very people you helped to educate and protect. I hope Galileo, Socrates, Oppenheimer and Tupac are there to keep you company! You have a lot to discuss, I’m sure 😉