Those outside the United Kingdom have likely never heard of Alan Turing, the father of computing. Yet his genius impregnates almost everything related to contemporary life. It has been exactly 60 years since the father of computer science and artificial intelligence killed himself and, today, a computer has passed his iconic “Turing Test” for artificial intelligence for the first time. Turing formulated the test in 1950, saying that if a machine could not be distinguished from a human, then that machine was indeed “thinking.” One can only speculate what Turing himself must think about today’s monumental news if, in fact, he has awareness.
The Turing Test requires 30 per cent of human interrogators to be tricked during five-minute keyboard conversations. Today, for the first time, the programming work of Eugene Goostman did just that. His program simulates a 13-year-old boy and it successfully convinced 33 percent of human judges that this was true.
One of England’s most influential and important people, Alan Turing laid the foundations of modern computing and is considered the father of computer science. In a 1936 paper, Turing proved that a machine could perform any conceivable mathematical problem if it could be represented as an algorithm. During World War II he was a leader in cracking various German codes, including the rotors of the famous Enigma cipher machines. His work saved thousands of lives.
Turing was a natural long-distance runner. During his time at Britain’s code-breaking center, Bletchley Park, he was occasionally called to high level meetings in London and would simply run the 40 miles.
In February 1946, Alan Turing presented a paper which included the first detailed design of a stored computer program. He was also at this time finalizing his design of the Automatic Computing Engine, arguably the first electronic stored-program computer design.
In his home country, Turing is known for more than being the father of computing. The police had discovered his relationship with another man and Turing ran head-on into the severe anti-gay laws of that time. He was prosecuted for gross indecency in March 1952 and, instead of prison, Turing agreed to be chemically castrated with the hormone oestrogen in an effort to crush his libido.
It was not big news when Alan Turing died two years later of cyanide poisoning. The fact that he and others had cracked the German codes during World War II was still a state secret and his name was not yet well-known.
Now Alan Turing is celebrated as the person who ushered in a new age. His efforts have morphed into technologies that have democratized news, facilitated revolutions and much more. Some have called him the gay man who saved the world. It will never be known how much further, how many more concepts and how much more revolutionary research would have occurred if Alan Turing had continued his work.
Alan Turing finally arrived into global awareness as the father of computing with the 1983 publication of his biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. That book inspired a play, Breaking the Code, which played in London and on Broadway. He was at long last a household name and, in December 2013, Alan Turing was posthumously awarded a Royal Pardon.
By Gregory Baskin