This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Father of Computer Science…Chemically Castrated!

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June 7, 1954:  Alan Turing Dies

Alan Turing is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.  He was an English mathematician, wartime code-breaker and pioneer of computer science.   He probably had a deeper understanding of computers and their potential in the future than anyone else.

alan_turing1 Alan-Turing

Great Men You’ve Never Heard of: Alan Turing, Inventor of the Computer Program

By Andy Luscombe

“You sit in front of a computer all day, but do you have any idea who’s responsible for pioneering the glowing box that’s on every desk in every home and office around the world?

I am going to go out on a limb here and assume that you use a computer.  You use it to work, you check your email, play games, read the news, Facebook, catching up with friends. You would think that with a machine that has become such an integral part of our lives, we would have heard more about the fathers of computing.  I’m not talking about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Today we celebrate the computing contribution of Alan Turing.

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Alan Turing was one of the most influential people in science or mathematics in the twentieth century. He laid the theoretical groundwork for computing and helped the Allies win World War II by breaking the Enigma code. He also made fundamental contributions to pure mathematics and to the development of programming languages, neural nets, and artificial intelligence.

From 1945 to 1947, he worked at the National Physics Laboratory, where he worked on the design for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), this was one of the early stored-program computers and a precursor to modern computers. His ACE design called for an earth shattering 5KB of memory and accessed at the lightning speed of 1 Mhz.

He also toyed with the idea of artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment that is now known as the Turing test. According to the test, a computer can be said to ‘think’ if it can trick a person into thinking that they are having a conversation with another person.

In 1948 with the help of his former colleague D. G. Champernowne, he developed a chess program for a computer that did not exist yet. In 1952 and lacking a powerful enough computer to execute the program, Turing played the game in which he simulated the computer.  Each move took about 30 minutes.  The game was recorded and the program lost to Alick Glennie, Turing’s colleague.  The program allegedly won against Champernowne’s wife.  This program eventually gave rise to the chess programs of today as well as artificial intelligence.”

Turing’s importance extends far beyond Turing Machines.  His work deciphering secret codes drastically shortened World War II and pioneered early computer technology. He was also an early innovator in the field of artificial intelligence, and came up with a way to test if computers could think – now known as the Turing Test.  Besides this abstract work, he was down to earth; he designed and built real machines, even making his own relays and wiring up circuits. This combination of pure math and computing machines was the foundation of computer science.

Alan Turing achieved world-class Marathon standards. His best time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds, was only 11 minutes slower than the winner in the 1948 Olympic Games. In a 1948 cross-country race he finished ahead of Tom Richards who was to win the silver medal in the Olympics.

Alan Turing achieved world-class Marathon standards. His best time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds, was only 11 minutes slower than the winner in the 1948 Olympic Games. In a 1948 cross-country race he finished ahead of Tom Richards who was to win the silver medal in the Olympics.

As a human being, Turing was also extraordinary and original. He was eccentric, witty, charming and loyal.  He was a marathon runner with world class time.  He was also openly gay in a time and place where this was not accepted.  While in many ways the world was not ready for Alan Turing, and lost him too soon, his legacy lives on in modern computing.

Alan Turing with two colleagues and a Ferranti computer in January 1951. Turing had previously been involved with the construction of both the Colossus, the electronic computer built at Bletchley Park during WW2, and, later, the Automatic Computing Engine. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Alan Turing with two colleagues and a Ferranti computer in January 1951. Turing had previously been involved with the construction of both the Colossus, the electronic computer built at Bletchley Park during WW2, and, later, the Automatic Computing Engine. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Turing machine

In the years after college, Turing began to consider whether a method or process could be devised that could decide whether a given mathematical assertion was provable.  Turing analyzed the methodical process, focusing on logical instructions, the action of the mind, and a machine that could be embodied as a physical form. He developed the proof that automatic computation cannot solve all mathematical problems. This concept became known as the Turing machine, which has become the foundation of the modern theory of computation and computability.

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Enigma code

Turing made it his goal to crack the complex Enigma code used in German naval communications, which were generally regarded as unbreakable.  Turing cracked the system and regular decryption of German messages began in mid-1941. [Video: Decoding the Mysterious World of Code-Breakers]

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Enigma Machine

By the end of the war, Turing was the only scientist working on the idea of a universal machine that could plug into the potential speed and reliability of electronic technology.  This led to the development of early hardware and the implementation of arithmetical functions by programming, and thus, computer science was born.

Turing test

Turing was also involved in philosophical debates over whether machines could think like a human brain. He devised a test to answer the question. He reasoned that if a computer acted, reacted and interacted like a sentient being, then it was sentient.

In this simple test, an interrogator in isolation asks questions of another person and a computer.  The questioner then must distinguish between the human and the computer based on their replies to his questions.  If the computer can “fool” the interrogator, it is intelligent.  Today, the Turing Test is at the heart of discussions about artificial intelligence.

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Turing had never been secretive about his homosexuality.  He was arrested and came to trial in 1952.  Turing never denied or defended his actions, instead asserting that there was nothing wrong with what he did.  The courts disagreed, and Turing was convicted of gross indecency. In order to avoid prison, Turing had to agree to chemical castration.

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Bitter over being turned away from the field he had revolutionized, Turing committed suicide in 1954 by ingesting cyanide. When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it was speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was consumed.

Turing was finally pardoned by the British government in 2009, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologized for how the scientist was treated.

Personal statement of apology by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, 10 September 2009.

1997 movie Breaking the Code

1997 movie Breaking the Code

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