Five things you need to know (or might not know) about Alan Turing

  • Author: Lauren
  • Lauren Fisher,

[caption id="attachment_43150" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of Mr Ush"]ian ush

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This year marks the centenary of Alan Turing's birth and so far there seems to be surprisingly few events planned to commemorate this. Arguably the founding father of computer science, and having met a particularly controversial death, there seems to be very little knowledge about him outside of the computing industry, and even sometimes, within this industry. As this should be the year to celebrate him, throughout 2012 we will have a number of posts dedicated to Alan Turing and I wanted to start at the very beginning, with 5 things you should know (or didn't know) about Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954)

The Turing machine

Though Turing excelled in computer science and maths and made many contributions to his industry, one of the most lasting impact he made on the technology industry and the computers we use today, can be found in the Turing machine. The self-named machine was introduced by Turing around 1936, and also came to be known as the Universal Machine. At the time it was a computer proposed by Turing, existing only on paper. Essentially, these 'machines' ran on the basis of algorithms (the term he used and that is still around today), to enable the computers to perform a large number of mathematical equations, or computations.

While this is his first real foray into computer science, history then intervened and following this, Turing then worked as a codebreaker for the British government during the second world war, working on German ciphers. Here he made major breakthroughs such as deciphering the German naval Enigma and also worked on the electronic computer Colossus, which was the first recognisable electronic computer.

The man behind the Apple logo?

Though this is unproven and some believe it as urban legend, it seems highly likely that Alan Turing was the unwitting inspiration behind the Apple logo. While some attribute the design of the Apple logo to what it means in terms of health, simplicity etc.. there seems to be a much darker, yet poetic explanation for the logo. 2 years after Turing was subjected to chemical injections to 'treat' his homosexuality, he died of cyanide poisoning, and many believe he took his own life, though this hasn't been confirmed. Next to his bed on the ground, lay a half-eaten apple which was believed to have been dipped in cyanide. Though Jobs never confirmed the rumor that this was the inspiration behind the Apple logo, it seems a surprising coincidence that the last mark left by the Father of computer science was an apple with a bite removed.

Developed the Turing Test

While Turing made many contributions in computer science, including during his time at Bell Labs in the U.S. (where he worked on the ACE computer) it's perhaps worth bringing his work into the context of the 21st Century and something that we encounter nearly every day : the CAPTCHA code (when a website requires you to enter a word to prove you're human). Though Turing was not responsible for this exact device for determining whether a user is a real human or computer, it is an extension, or a reversal of the Turing Test that he developed around 1950. He developed the test as part of his work into exploring artificial intelligence, in order to determine to what extent a computer could be deemed to think for itself, i.e. to think like a human. The test was called the 'imitation game' by Turing at the time, and involved an interrogator posing questions to a human and a computer. The responses were relayed via text messages and if the interrogator could not tell them apart, then Turing concluded this meant the computer could be called 'intelligent'. Extending this logic, the CAPTCHA code was later developed in 2000 and actually stands for :

Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers And Humans Apart.

He died too young

The treatment of Turing, who was a homosexual at a time when it was forbidden in the UK, would be bad enough, but it has a particularly bitter taste given the contributions he made under the British Government during the Second World War. Ultimately he was given two options : prison, or 'treatment' by female hormones. Turing opted for the latter, and 2 years after this treatment began (when he was also restricted from working at GCHQ) that he supposedly commited suicide. In 2009 Gordon Brown made an official apology for the treatment of Turing and indeed he is now being honored, in the year of his centenary, through the distribution of an official stamp to honour Britons of Distinction. Though his death may or may not have been a result of his treatment by the government, looking at the contributions Turing made up to the age of 42, it is a sad loss for the industry that he was not able to contribute more - the effects of which we would still be seeing today.

His pursuit of education

When someone has made such a contribution to society and industry, it's also worth looking at the person behind the work, and what drove them. Genius such as this is rarely found without sheer dedication, and this can be seen in Turing's early education.  In 1926 when he was due to start at Sherborne School, that a general strike was on and he couldn't use public transport to travel to school. Not to be put off, Turing cycled the 60 miles from his home to school, even staying overnight at an inn to complete his journey.