June 23rd marks the centenary of Alan Turing’s Birth. In the 100 years since his birth, science and technology have advanced dramatically. Turing only lived into his 40s, but even so his contributions to science and technology were profound, provocative, and lifesaving.
Turing’s work in computability put him on the radar at Bletchley Park, where several of Britains brightest worked to crack the code of the German Enigma Machine. The team could be thought of as an early band of hackers, trying to extract information from German military command.
Turing’s work centered around the development of the bombe, an early electromechanical device that eventually led to modern computers. The bombe could repeatedly test potential Enigma codes and pass along promising candidates to cryptanalysts at Bletchley. In succeeding, the team’s efforts are credited with bringing about Allied victory years before it might otherwise have.
Computability was conceptualized through the processes that a Turing machine would go through to complete tasks. Turing believed that most tasks could be broken down into something machine readable, an algorithm. This is a set of instructions for calculating a result or solving a problem. When done repeteadly and precisely, potential applications are limitless.
As algorithms and the machines that analyzed them became more powerful they eventually developed into what we now think of as supercomputers, laptops, smartphones, and so on. As the creator of the Turing machine concept and one of the early thinkers in computability, Turing is considered the grandfather of computer science and the computer itself.
The impact of Turing’s work in computing enabled the rise of the internet and societal development toward an information or knowledge economy.
Modern computer and internet integration aren’t all positive of course. The world is now more susceptible to viruses than ever. A virus from the turn of the millennium, Love Bug, made headlines simply because it was widespread. A little over a decade later, viruses often aren’t newsworthy unless they cause significant problems at noteworthy sites.
The Turing Test raises an array of questions about knowledge, what it means to be human, and how artificial intelligence will develop. The test attempts to determine whether a person might be able to tell if they are interacting with a human or a machine during computer-mediated socialization. Those of you who’ve seen Blade Runner may recall the Voight-Kampff test, a modified Turing Test that revealed whether or not a humanoid was human or a Replicant machine.
The University of Leeds is the epicenter for a whole year of events that celebrate the man’s life, including the TURING 100 Conference on the days surrounding the anniversary. There, major figures in the world of science and technology will gather to give lectures and honor a short life’s work. It’s been 100 years since Alan Turing’s birth, and in that time we’ve come from no computers to smartphones in half of British pockets. Who knows what innovations will have come by the next time we celebrate this anniversary. Any ideas?
- University of Leeds Centenary Celebration
- BBC History: Alan Turing
- Alan Turing: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy