Remembering Alan Turing

All of Him!

Google was right to pay homage to Alan Turing on the hundredth anniversary of his birth with a “Doodle” of the famous Turing Machine. Indeed, without Turing, it is likely that Google would not exist, at least in its current manifestation. The life and work of Alan Turing made the icons of computer advancement, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. possible. Add on top of that the thousands of lives and countless contributions made by those saved by Turing’s efforts during World War II. It could be said that Alan Turing is one of the most underappreciated contributors to history.

Alan was born in England on June 23, 1912. Even as a youth, he demonstrated passion for science and mathematics, often to the distraction of his mother. He attended King’s College, at Cambridge where he was influenced by the works of John Von Neumann and enthralled by the new and mathematically tumultuous universe of quantum mechanics. He was also inspired by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s masterwork in mathematical logic, the Principia Mathematica.

The Principia Mathematica was an attempt to amalgamate all of the rules of mathematics into one, complete, logical method. It was Russell’s and Whitehead’s belief that all of mathematics could be understood through logical axioms. The Principia remains one of the most important works of logic and mathematics in history, but fell short of its lofty goals. Two theorems of “incompleteness” developed by Kurt Gödel shattered the aspirations of admittedly exhausted Russell and Whitehead. Gödel challenged the possibility of a complete logic of mathematics by positing a logical statement, “statement x cannot be proven.” If statement x can be proven, then it is inherently incorrect, but if the statement cannot be proven, then though the statement is correct, it demonstrates the incompleteness of the system. This awkward logic then led to Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, that no mathematical system can be used to prove its own consistency.

Now the above may only be interesting to fans of logic, and largely alien to the rest of us, but it was an important conundrum to Turing. He became interested in determining whether or not there was a method by which a mathematician or logician could prove if a given axiom was provable. He determined that such a method would be excruciatingly tedious to a human “computer.” Was there a way to mechanize the process of computing, however? This thought experiment became known as the famous Turing Machine, an algorithm-making device that could perform endless calculations. Through this mind experiment, Turing proved Gödel’s inconsistencies to be correct. No such complete device could be created, thus no such method could exist.

However, the possibilities of such a machine became a focus of Turing’s work. Yes, perhaps a computing machine had logical limitations, but at the same time it had a virtually limitless potential. The Turing Machine became the conceptual bedrock of modern computing on which all of modern society depends, including the very process of writing and presenting this blog.

Turing continued his contributions to modern computing, designing actual computing machines, though never fully developed, and creating the first programming language, the Abbreviated Code Instructions. His boundless imagination set upon the potential “intelligence” of these calculating machines. Is the human brain simply another kind of Turing Machine? If so, at what point might a human-made computer machine be considered intelligent? Turing imagined computing machines that could perform complex tasks like playing chess, but also were capable of learning. His work in this area is foundational in the modern pursuit of artificial intelligence.

He even created the famous “Turing Test” for determining if a machine was intelligent. The test is simple. Allow a person to question both a computer and a human, without being able to see either. If, based solely on the responses of each, the inquisitor is unable to differentiate the computer respondent from the human respondent, then the computer has achieved intelligence, not just computational power.

Turing was also the first mathematician to use a computer in his theoretical work, in this case, to help him understand the mathematics of genetics. Before Watson and Crick, Turing wrote The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis in an attempt to compute the very algorithms of life. There was no limit to the directionality of Turing’s probing mind.

As incredible and life advancing as the above contributions were, Turing could also be described as a war hero. In 1939 Turing, a lifelong fan of ciphers, joined the ranks of British intelligence at the famous Bletchly Park. The primary mission at Bletchly was to break the notorious German Enigma code. These coded communications were key to breaking Hitler’s U-Boat stranglehold over the North Atlantic. England’s brave stand against tyranny in the Battle of Britain rested on successfully deciphering these communications. With Turing’s help, the Enigma Code was broken. The first electronic deciphering machines were developed. These would ultimately become the first computers. Shortly after breaking the Enigma Code, the United States and Britain gained control of the North Atlantic and were free to prepare the invasions of Nazi occupied Europe.

Turing remained an active member of Britain’s intelligence community for a number of years after the war. This is where Turing’s noteworthy life turns tragic, however.

Alan Turing was gay.

Turing’s sexuality was a rather open secret. During the war, his value to the war effort was the best blinder to the certainty of his homosexuality. After the war a peculiar brand of homophobia developed. Because of his sexuality, Turing was considered a national security threat. He lost his top-secret clearance, an action that hurt him deeply.

But the post-war Puritans were not done. Turing was put on trial for his homosexuality in 1952. The most damning attribute of his “crime” was the fact that he offered no defense for his actions. Indeed, he saw nothing wrong with his sincere desires and affections. For this, he was coerced by the court to undergo therapy for his deviance and invasive hormonal treatments to diminish his libido. These invasions against his person, his privacy, his social standing proved too much for this great mind.

He committed suicide in 1954.¹

Alan Turing’s life was important in many ways. Consider, for a moment, all of the lives that were enriched if not saved by the products of his vivacious mind. This is not only true with regard to Turing’s service during World War II, but also with regard to the technological fruits of his conceptual labor. Think of the medical innovations alone that could not have been created had it not been for the “Turing Machine.”

It is, however, contingent upon us to acknowledge the injustice of his death if we are to celebrate the contributions of his life. The fruits of one’s mind, one’s contributions to history and society, is not enough to offer protection against the pervasiveness of bigotry and ignorance.

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¹ Turing committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide, a very painful way to die. It is said that the Apple logo, an apple with a bite missing, is a secret homage to Alan Turing. I have not been able to confirm the validity of this claim. To paraphrase Roscoe Lee Brown in the movie Cowboys, if it’s not true, it ought to be.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Alan Turing

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  1. The Apple logo is actually a bit of a homage to the All One Farm, a commune-style apple orchard where Steve Jobs lived and worked for a while prior to the company’s inception. Jobs, keeping this fresh memory in mind, suggested “Apple” as a company name, as it was also catchy, attention-grabbing, and listed before “Atari” in California’s phone book at the time. The logo designer, Rob Janoff, put the bite mark there simply to distinguish the apple from a cherry or some other similar fruit, nothing more, although Jobs did tell biographer Walter Isaacson that “he wished he had thought of that”. Great article, is the paper due on Tuesday?

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