Turing our World
Yesterday, June 23, 2012, was the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. If you’ve never heard of him, you need to know.
He is one of the reasons we are able to communicate on the Internet. Without Alan Turing, the modern computer would not exist.
He is one of the reasons Hitler did not conquer England. Without Alan Turing, the Nazis may have won the Second World War.
He was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, before there were computers capable of even approaching the idea. Without Alan Turing, I could not have written my first published novel.
He was a genius and a war hero. He was a scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died in 1954, at the age of 41, from cyanide poisoning. His death was initially ruled a suicide, and has been so viewed for 58 years. Yesterday, at a conference at Oxford, historian Jack Copeland questioned that conclusion.
His death may have been accidental. Whether Turing killed himself, or whether he died from carelessness, either way, his death matters. His life mattered. The world is poorer for his loss. You should care about this, for his life says something — I don’t know what, but something — about the society we live in and the world we are creating.
I won’t try to give a full biography. I can’t do his life justice in the space of a single small blog post. I will hit a few highlights to give an impression of this brilliant and complex man.
As a computer geek and a software consultant, I owe my profession and my hobbies to Turing. In 1937, he designed and described the theoretical concepts that led to the digital computer. His design is called the Turing Machine. It’s a conceptual construct — it would be impractical to build, and Turing never intended that such a machine could ever actually exist. His achievement was to lay out the theoretical requirements of a digital computer.
Turing defined the idea of “algorithm”, a series of basic commands and logical steps that could be encoded and stored within a mechanical device, a set of functions that could be used to solve a problem or calculate an answer to a question. All modern computing relies on these ideas. In a very real sense, Turing invented the computer.
During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), later known as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a branch of the British intelligence service that deals with codebreaking. Turing was instrumental in breaking Germany’s most powerful code, the Enigma Code, by which the Axis communicated secret military messages. Armed with the ability to read these messages, the Allies were able to anticipate many Nazi moves, and to respond quickly and sometimes preemptively. The details of much of this remain secret to this day, and Turing’s involvement is not widely appreciated.
After the war, Turing worked at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, and then at Manchester University, and helped to build the first electronic computers. In those days, computers were enormous, expensive, and clumsy — but they worked, and they worked because of Turing. He began to think about the limits of artificial computers (as opposed to the “natural computers” that we have inside our heads). He drew a distinction between computation and intelligence, and he defined a test that could be used to determine whether a computer is truly intelligent.
This is a beautiful and elegant idea. It has come to be known as the Turing Test. Put a computer in one room, and a human in another. Provide a second human, a “tester”, with a way of communicating with both — today, we would perhaps envision a chat program. If the tester is unable to tell which is the human and which is the computer, then the computer has achieved human levels of intelligence.
Put it another way. Imagine you call your local pizza place to get dinner. Maybe someone answers the phone, and takes your order. Maybe you like that person’s voice — she sounds pretty cute, but she makes a mistake adding up your order, and you keep her on the line to correct it. You get into a conversation about the weather, and about the movie you saw last night, or maybe how your local baseball team is doing these days. She’s bright and funny. You’re intrigued, and ask her out for a date. Then she tells you, “I’m sorry, I’m a computer program. I can’t date you. But your pizza will be there in twenty minutes.”
If you can’t tell the difference between a computer and a human, then you may have found a computer that has passed the Turing Test. Would such a computer be alive and conscious? How could you tell? Turing asked those questions, but didn’t attempt to provide a final answer for them. What he did do was define what to look for in true artificial intelligence, long before any computer could approach such capabilities.
Brilliant mathematician and philosopher, unsung war hero, computer pioneer, Turing got into trouble with the law. In 1952, he reported a burglary in his home. As part of the investigation, police discovered he had a male lover. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain in 1952, and Turing was charged with “acts of gross indecency.” Rather than accept a prison sentence and loss of his position at Manchester University — which would have meant losing access to what was then one of the world’s few existing computers — Turing accepted a form of chemical castration, massive injections of female hormones, to kill his sex drive.
He lived with this sentence for a year. In 1953, a gay Norwegian acquaintance sent him a postcard to let him know he’d visit soon. The friend never showed up, and there are rumors, but no hard evidence, concerning what happened to him.
On June 7, 1954, Turing was found dead by his housekeeper, a half-eaten apple by his bedside. The coroner concluded he had died from cyanide poisoning, and assumed the apple had been poisoned (though it was never tested) and that Turning had killed himself (though he had never hinted to anyone that he intended suicide). The coroner said, “In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.” He didn’t have to expand upon “a man of his type”; it was assumed that homosexuals were unbalanced.
Now, nearly sixty years later, Turing expert Jack Copeland has reopened the question of suicide. Turing was a man of many interests, and he had cyanide in his home at the time for some chemical experiments he was conducting. There is the possibility his death was an accident. (Anyone who wants to speculate on any other possibilities would not necessarily be unjustified in doing so.)
Turing contributed a great deal to the world we live in today, yet his legacy remains relatively obscure. Few of the people who benefit from his work even know his name, though he profoundly altered our world. Every time you turn on your computer, use your smartphone, or acknowledge the results of the Second World War, you owe a debt to Alan Turing. His reward was to spend the last two years of his life under a cloud, for having the audacity to love people who had the same kind of genitalia he did.
We need to treat our heroes better.
- Alan Turing & Title IX(irez.me)
- For Alan Turing’s Birthday: A LEGO Turing Machine(tor.com)
- Editorial: Alan Turing’s Legacy(nytimes.com)
- In honour of Alan Turing(cartesianproduct.wordpress.com)
- My Brother Alan Turing(thedailybeast.com)
- Alan Turing honoured with Google doodle (guardian.co.uk)
- Alan Turing (1912–1954) (computationalcomplexity.org)
- A Forgotten Man — Alan Turing (lezgetreal.com)
- In Defense of Life: Alan Turing, the Original Hacker. (bigthink.com)
- Turing Round Up (aperiodical.com)
- Turing (adactio.com)
- Quiz Of The Week: Take Our Turing Test (techweekeurope.co.uk)
About dcpetterson (187 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson