Scientists remember Turing, father of modern computers

Jun 23, 2012 by Mariette le Roux
A World War II Enigma decoding machine pictured at Bletchley Park, central England, in 2004. British mathematician Alan Turing is credited with breaking code used to encrypt communications between German U-boats, sinking merchant ships bringing much-needed supplies to Britain. The centenary of Turing's birth will be marked with events from Bangalore to Texas on June 23.

Scientists will gather from Bangalore to Texas on Saturday to honour British mathematician Alan Turing, a pioneer of the modern computer whose code-cracking is credited with shortening World War II.

On the June 23 centenary of his birth in London, several cities will host conferences and exhibitions to celebrate the work of a man hailed as a rare genius today but persecuted for being gay when he was alive.

"Of all the finest types of intelligence -- human, artificial and military -- Turing is perhaps the only person to have made a world-changing contribution to all three," the said in a recent editorial.

Remembered as an eccentric with "an impish sense of humour", Turing died aged 41 of after he was convicted in 1952 of "gross indecency" for being homosexual, then illegal in the UK, and sentenced to chemical castration.

Some believe he took his own life by eating a poisoned apple in 1954, but this has not been proven.

In his short life, Turing lay the theoretical foundation for the modern-day computer, set the standard for artificial intelligence, unravelled German codes in a war effort some say saved millions of lives, and came close to solving a biological riddle that still confounds scientists today.

In 1936, Turing published a paper conceiving of a "universal Turing machine".

Having told people he was trying to "build a brain", his theory was the first to consider feeding programmes into a machine as data, allowing a single machine to perform the functions of many -- just like today's computers.

The first version of Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) was completed by other scientists and engineers in 1950, then the fastest machine in the world.

"Inventing the computer is such a huge contribution it sounds strange to talk about there being an even greater contribution to that. But I suppose his code-breaking contribution at Bletchley Park in terms of its impact on the world is even greater," said mathematical logician Jack Copeland.

Bletchley Park, northwest of London, housed the British decoding effort during .

Queen Elizabeth II (L) and husband Prince Philip, with wartime operator Ruth Bourne (C), presses a button on the Enigma codebreaking machine during a visit to Bletchley Park, near London, in July 2011. Bletchley Park housed the British decoding effort during World War II.

In work that remained secret until long after the war, Turing is credited with breaking the code used to encrypt communications between German U-boats operating in the North Atlantic, sinking merchant ships bringing much-needed supplies to the island nation.

"Turing managed to break into the daily U-boat traffic and once they were reading the messages, then they knew the positions of the U-boats and the convoys could be routed around the U-boats," Copeland, who has written several books about Turing, told AFP.

Some historians have estimated that without this breakthrough, a war claiming millions of lives every year might have continued another year or two by allowing Hitler to entrench his position in Europe.

In another incarnation, Turing developed a measure of that is still applied today -- the so-called Turing Test which states that a machine would be truly intelligent if a human could not differentiate between its response to a question and that of another human.

And towards the end of his life, he published research on how organisms develop certain patterns, like stripes on a zebra or spots on a cow -- his most cited paper.

In spite of his achievements, Turing's name was not widely known when he was alive.

He was said to have been shy but funny, "a very sort of geekish mathematician", according to Barry Cooper, himself a mathematician who heads the Turing centenary advisory committee.

He was also an excellent long-distance runner.

A hay-fever sufferer, Turing took to wearing a gas mask to protect himself from pollen while cycling.

As a boy, he was described as an odd character, untidy and scruffy, Cooper said.

He was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire after the war, the second lowest-ranked order, in a move regarded as an insult by Turing fans today.

Three years ago, then-British prime minister Gordon Brown issued a posthumous apology and said Turing had been treated "terribly."

Commemorative events are being planned this weekend in countries including India, South Korea and the United States as well as at the universities of Manchester and Cambridge in Britain, where Turing worked.

There will be a music concert in his honour in Seattle and a tribute walk ending at Sackville Park in Manchester where a life-size statue of Turing sits on a bench holding an apple.

"I don't think he could have imagined" his posthumous acclaim, said Copeland.

"I think he probably wouldn't have cared much, either.

"He was driven by curiosity and the spirit of scientific enquiry and as long as he knew, he didn't much care about passing his ideas on to other people."

Explore further: Google's Street View address reading software also able to decipher CAPTCHAs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Science world commemorates father of computer science

Jun 20, 2012

Scientists will gather from Bangalore to Texas on Saturday to honour British mathematician Alan Turing, a pioneer of the modern computer whose code-cracking is credited with shortening World War II.

Archive of WWII codebreaker Alan Turing preserved

Feb 25, 2011

(AP) -- Papers relating to codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing will go to a British museum after the National Heritage Memorial Fund stepped in to help buy them for the nation.

Mathematician sees artistic side to father of computer

Feb 23, 2012

This year a series of events around the world will celebrate the work of Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, as the 100th anniversary of his birthday approaches on June 23. In a book chapter that ...

Alan Turing's 1950s tiger stripe theory proved

Feb 19, 2012

Researchers from King's College London have provided the first experimental evidence confirming a great British mathematician's theory of how biological patterns such as tiger stripes or leopard spots are ...

Recommended for you

Ant colonies help evacuees in disaster zones

Apr 16, 2014

An escape route mapping system based on the behavior of ant colonies could give evacuees a better chance of reaching safe harbor after a natural disaster or terrorist attack by building a map of showing the shortest routes ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jun 23, 2012
In another incarnation, Turing developed a measure of artificial intelligence that is still applied today -- the so-called Turing Test which states that a machine would be truly intelligent if a human could not differentiate between its response to a question and that of another human.


That's not what the man said!

Turing simply pointed out that you can't know if a machine is thinking if you don't know what "thinking" means, so he proposed an alternative test: to see if a machine can imitate a human being, because that's a well defined question.

Somehow this gets twisted into saying that if a machine can imitate intelligence, it must be intelligent. The problem is, that a simple answering machine regularily beats an informal version of the Turing test, if the recorded message is simply "Hello.", followed by a pause and "Hi, how are you?".
COCO
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2012
terrible treatment does little to reveal the true nature of the punishment the British government and laws had on this chap just for his life-style.

More news stories

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Chronic inflammation linked to 'high-grade' prostate cancer

Men who show signs of chronic inflammation in non-cancerous prostate tissue may have nearly twice the risk of actually having prostate cancer than those with no inflammation, according to results of a new study led by researchers ...