The Centenial Year of a Great Man: Alan Turing


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jan 05, 2012 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

I was four years old when Alan Turing died At the age of four I never knew I would become involved with computers, in fact I did not know what a computer was.

It was only when I entered university in 1968 and started studying what was then “computer black magic” that I heard about the man who conceived of the theory of the Turing Machine, and later the classic test for artificial intelligence, the Turing Test.

When I worked at Digital Equipment Corporation, we had conference rooms named after great computer scientists, and of course the “Turing Room” was one of them.

This year I will be 62. I will have lived twenty years longer than Alan Turing, and despite many things I am proud of in my life, I know I have not accomplished a minute part of what he had accomplished, or what he could have accomplished if he had lived longer.

A lot of people talk about “Intellectual Property”. If there was indeed “Intellectual Property” then I might own a patio and Alan Turing would have all of the Hawaiian Islands. If Alan Turing had patented his work, today he would have been richer than Midas.

Sometimes it is hard for us to look backwards and say “Gee, that is obvious”, or “What is the big deal”, but when you are trying to look forward, the discovery of something truly new is often difficult.

Turing was first of all a mathematician (never my strongest point) , a logician (now we are talking), a cryptanalyst and a computer scientist. Even in his earliest years he would solve very complex problems without having been exposed to the higher order mathematics that would have made the problems much easier to solve.

In 1931, while still a first-year student at King's College, he reformulated Kurt Gödel's results on the limit of proof and created the concept of Turing Machines, which created a mathematical definition of a computer and a program. This allowed him to prove that a general algorithm to show whether a computer would eventually come to the end of a particular program and input or continue to run forever was not possible to construct. The other thing that Turing's proof showed was that any “Universal Turing Machine” could solve any problem that any other “Universal Turing Machine” could solve, given enough time and memory.....a proof that I used and quoted many times in my life to my students, but to develop that thought....let's just say the work was fairly heavy for a first-year university student.

In 1946 Turing went on to write a paper designing the first stored program computer. Before this, computers had their programs punched into tapes, or read off cards, or controlled with wires and plug-boards (I programmed a computer that used a plug-board. I prefer not to think about it.) Again, the concept that one moment the ones and zeros that were in the machine were “data” (as you stored it) and a fraction of a second later they were a “program” that the computer would follow is “simple” for you and I, but escaped many people for a long time. While Turing never actually built the computer, due to delays, it was built from his design and functioned for many years.

Later on he formulated the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, which basically said that if you could not tell from the output of a program whether you are talking to a computer or a human, then the computer was artificially intelligent. While there have been lots of simulations of “intelligent conversation” that have been created, eventually in the “conversation” they break down and people realize they are talking to a machine.

As great as these (and other) contributions to computer science, Turing's greatest contribution to the world was his work at Bletchley Park outside London in breaking the Enigma Code that the German military was using in World War II. Without Turing's help, World War II might have had a completely different ending.

When I was in university the work Alan Turing had done at Bletchley Park was still classified, since not a single person of the over 12,000 who worked there spoke of decrypting the German encoded transmissions until the early 1970s. Nor did they talk about the computational engines created, including the Colossus, the world's first electronic, programmable machine. It must have been very painful for the people working there to see the machines they had worked on so hard and for so long destroyed by the orders of Churchill after the war ended.

I believe it was also very painful for Turing not to be able to use this work in defense of charges of potential espionage, and to have his security clearance taken away from him while he continued to do research into cryptography.

What happened to Turing's life in 1952 to disrupt it so much? Alan Turing was arrested for having a sexual relationship with another man, at that time illegal in the United Kingdom. His security clearance was removed, and he was treated with hormones to “control” his homosexuality.

Alan Turing died at the age of 42 in 1954. Some say his death was an accident, brought on by careless handling of chemicals, but others say that the cyanide was introduced through an apple he was eating, a suicide brought on by his depression.

Over the years the laws on homosexuality have been overturned in the United Kingdom, as they have in other civilized countries and Turing has been posthumously awarded several honors. Due to a petition circulated in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the appalling way that Alan Turing had been treated by the British Government.

This year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, there will be a year-long, world-wide celebration of his achievements and even a Royal Mail Postage Stamp honoring him, to be released on the 23rd of February.

There is also a petition to have a full pardon given to Alan Turing, for while Great Britain has apologized to him for how he was treated, his conviction under the law still remains. I would encourage everyone to sign the petition, even if you are not from Great Britain.

As I travel to various events around the world this year I will be reminding people about a great man and his legacy.

Carpe Diem!

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