Alan Turing

Alan_TuringAlan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS (23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954), was an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist. He was highly influential in the development of computer science, providing a formalization of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, which played a significant role in the creation of the modern computer.

During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. For a time he was head of Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including the method of the bombe, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. After the war he worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, the ACE.

Towards the end of his life Turing became interested in mathematical biology. He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis, and he predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, which were first observed in the 1960s.

Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution in 1952 — homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time — and he accepted treatment with female hormones (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison.

The Turing Test

In 1949 he became deputy director of the computing laboratory at theUniversity of Manchester, and worked on software for one of the earliest stored-program computers—the Manchester Mark 1. During this time he continued to do more abstract work, and in “Computing machinery and intelligence” (Mind, October 1950), Turing addressed the problem of artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment which became known as the Turing test, an attempt to define a standard for a machine to be called “intelligent”. The idea was that a computer could be said to “think” if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human being. In the paper, Turing suggested that rather than building a program to simulate the adult mind, it would be better rather to produce a simpler one to simulate a child’s mind and then to subject it to a course of education. A reversed form of the Turing test is widely used on the Internet; the CAPTCHA test is intended to determine whether the user is a human or a computer.

Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park

Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park

In 1948, Turing, working with his former undergraduate colleague, D. G. Champernowne, began writing a chess program for a computer that did not yet exist. In 1952, lacking a computer powerful enough to execute the program, Turing played a game in which he simulated the computer, taking about half an hour per move. The game was recorded.The program lost to Turing’s colleague Alick Glennie, although it is said that it won a game against Champernowne’s wife.

His Turing test was a significant and characteristically provocative and lasting contribution to the debate regarding artificial intelligence, which continues after more than half a century.

Turing died in 1954, several weeks before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined it was suicide; his mother and some others believed his death was accidental. On 10 September 2009, following an Internet campaign, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for the way in which Turing was treated after the war

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3 Responses to Alan Turing

  1. alfy says:

    There was a stage play about Alan Turing called “Breaking the Code”, a neat pun on Turing’s professional work and his social proclivities. It starred the distinguished actor, Derek Jacobi as Turing and had a successful run. I saw it, but now struggle to recall much about it. My impression was that it gave a sober account of the scientific and mathematical issues and a sympathetic account of Turing as a person. (Light years away from “Copenhagen”)

  2. Deskarati says:

    You didn’t like Copenhagen!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Pingback: Leonardo DiCaprio tipped to play codebreaker Alan Turing | DESKARATI – AN ECLECTIC MIX OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, HISTORY AND THE ARTS

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