This June marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan M. Turing. Those of you who are not students of computing history may have never heard of Turing however if not for his work you wouldn’t be reading this article or doing anything with a computer. Turing was a British mathematician whose most famous accomplishment was breaking the German Enigma code during World War II. As an example of how important this code breaking was to the war effort, when he had broken the German naval code, sinking of British ships decreased by 72%.
If his code breaking efforts were his only accomplishments, he would be an important historical figure. But the fundamental principles underlying the computer you are using right now were created by Turing in the 1940s and 1950s.
A new exhibition celebrating the life of Turing was launched at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, UK. During World War II, Turing was based at Bletchley and played a crucial role in cracking ciphers used to scramble German communications, including designing an electromechanical machine called the bombe, which partially automated the code-breaking. The exhibition covers Turing’s personal life and professional achievements, ranging from his school reports to academic papers where he set out his model for the universal machine.
Here is an article from TechRepublic with a slideshow of various items in the exhibit and explanations of his work depicted there. I also recommend the Wikipedia article on Turing which gives more details about his life.
In the world of computing, Turing is known for inventing something he called “The Universal Machine”. Basically this machine was the first description of what is now known as a stored program computer. Previously any computing machines such as calculators were engineered to solve only one problem. If you wanted to solve some other problem build a different machine. Turing envisioned this universal machine is having its program written in some coded form and stored in the memory of the computer along with the data which it was computing. All you have to do to make machine do something different was to change what was stored in its memory. The essentially load a different program into memory and the computer could do something completely different. That is the founding principal of all computers today. Even the little pocket calculator you may have is essentially a stored program computer. If you could take it apart, replace its program memory with a different program, it would do something completely different.
Turing was also interested in artificial intelligence. In an attempt to answer the question “Can computers think?” developed what came to be known as the Turing test. He suggested that you interview a human being and a computer via teletype machine or some other means of communication that the computer might be able to understand. If the interviewer could not discern which of the two subjects was a human being and which was a computer then you had come pretty damn close to having a machine that could “think”. The recent exhibition in which it IBM supercomputer named Watson competed against human opponents on the TV show Jeopardy was a kind of Turing test.
While Turing should’ve been a great hero in Britain during his own lifetime, sadly he was convicted of indecency because he admitted to homosexual relationship with a colleague in 1952. In those days really being homosexual in Great Britain was a crime. Various honors and awards which had been created to him for his efforts during the war were withdrawn. In June 1954 he was found dead of an apparent suicide.
In August 2009 British government issued official statements apologizing for the treatment of Turing. Numerous tributes including the Association for Computing Machinery annual Turing Award have been created in honor of him. The new exhibit described above is part of an overall celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
I’ve often wondered if the “Turing test” was more than just about artificial intelligence and computing. Turing test was designed to test whether or not someone was “human”. If you couldn’t tell the difference between a questionable human and a “real human” than there really wasn’t any difference. I wonder if perhaps that test was really a metaphor for how he wanted to be treated in regard to his homosexuality. You have to wonder what further computer advances he might’ve developed had he not taken his own life at a relatively young age. And what accomplishments are lost to the world by people today and take the lives because the world judges them as failing Turing test.