We all are a product of our times. Our interests, achievements and expectations of the future happens in the context of the times we live in. Consequently, most of us don’t see beyond the present and even our predictions of the future are coloured by our present times. Occasionally, there comes along a man or woman who sees further than anybody else of his/her generation. Alan Turing was one of them. Though he was largely ignored during his own lifetime and even perhaps hounded for his sexual tendencies, leading to his tragic death at a relatively young age his theories had such far reaching implications. It is difficult to imagine whether his universal computing machine would have been conceived by someone else if he had not done it.
Turing completed his schooling in Sherborne School in Dorset. Turing joined King’s College, Cambridge, as an undergraduate from 1931 to 1934, where he gained first-class honours in mathematics. In 1935, at the age of 22, he was elected a fellow of King’s College.
According to the Wikipedia, “In 1936, Turing published his paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (1936). The Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem) was originally posed by German mathematician David Hilbert in 1928. Turing proved that his “universal computing machine” would be capable of performing any conceivable mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm.”
In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, Turing joined the Government Code & Cypher School(GC&CS) and moved to its wartime HQ in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.
At Bletchley Park, Turing made 3 key contributions, which may have helped reduce the duration of World War II by 2 years and saved 14 million lives. 1 was creating the anti-enigma machine the Bombe, second was personally breaking the Enigma used by German U-boats and third was Turingery, the first systematic method for cracking Tunny messages.
According to the article Alan Turing: The code-breaker who saved ‘millions of lives by Jack Copeland in bbc.com, “Turing pitted machine against machine. The prototype model of his anti-Enigma “bombe”, named simply Victory, was installed in the spring of 1940.
His bombes turned Bletchley Park into a code breaking factory. As early as 1943 Turing’s machines were cracking a staggering total of 84,000 Enigma messages each month – two messages every minute.
Turing personally broke the form of Enigma that was used by the U-boats preying on the North Atlantic merchant convoys.
It was a crucial contribution. The convoys set out from North America loaded with vast cargoes of essential supplies for Britain, but the U-boats’ torpedoes were sinking so many of the ships that Churchill’s analysts said Britain would soon be starving.”
On Turingery, the article claims, “ Turing also searched for a way to break into the torrent of messages suddenly emanating from a new, and much more sophisticated, German cipher machine.
The British code named the new machine Tunny. The Tunny teleprinter communications network, a harbinger of today’s mobile phone networks, spanned Europe and North Africa, connecting Hitler and the Army High Command in Berlin to the front-line generals.
Turing’s breakthrough in 1942 yielded the first systematic method for cracking Tunny messages. His method was known at Bletchley Park simply as Turingery, and the broken Tunny messages gave detailed knowledge of German strategy – information that changed the course of the war.”
After the war, Turing turned his attention to building an electronic computer dubbed “The Giant Brain”by the popular press at that time. In his article, Alan Turing: why the tech world’s hero should be a household name, Vint Cerf, Turing Award winner and Chief internet evangelist at Google, enumerates Turing’s work on the ACE and artificial intelligence, thus.
“After the war, Turing worked on the design of of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and in 1946, he delivered a paper on the design of a stored program computer.
His work was contemporary with another giant in computer science, John von Neumann, who worked on the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC).
ACE and EDVAC were binary machines and both broke new conceptual ground with the notion of a program stored in memory that drove the operation of the machine.”
“In 1949, Turing became the deputy director of the Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester where he focused on the software needed to drive the Manchester Mark 1 stored program computer. In 1950, he published a paper entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he explored the notion of artificial intelligence.
In this paper, he posed the so-called Turing Test in which an artificial intelligence would be judged intelligent if another human could not tell the difference between the responses of a human and the artificially intelligent machine.”
Though he is rightly termed as the ‘Father of Computer Science’ now, during his time his achievements were largely ignored. In his article, Alan Turing: Is he really the father of computing?, Simon Lavington claims,
“Like many other brilliant minds, Turing’s significance was widely appreciated only after his death.
He is often called the “father of computing”, but was this really the case at the time of conception?
Turing’s former Cambridge tutor and leader of the wartime Colossus development at Bletchley Park, Prof Max Newman, described him as “one of the most profound and original mathematical minds of his generation”.
And yet, when asked what influence Turing’s On Computable Numbers paper had in the early days of computer design, Newman replied: “I should say practically none at all.””
There have been 2 movies on the life of Alan Turing – “The Imitation game” and “Breaking the Code”. I liked The Imitation Game better. But, there is a very good article in gizmodo.com called, Which Alan Turing Movie Really Captures The Father Of Computer Science? by Jason Shankel, which compares the 2 movies. It concludes the article with the following comment,
“Watch The Imitation Game to learn how Alan Turing saved the world. Watch Breaking the Code to learn more about the world he saved.”
Though ignored during his own lifetime, Alan Turing in posterity has taken his rightful place in the pantheon of Computer luminaries.
As promised, I have begun at the beginning. In the next article, let’s trace the history of another giant, John von Neumann and his contributions to computer science. We will also explore the significance of his contribution in relation to that of Turing. But, that’s for next week.
Disclaimer: This is curated blog post containing content curated from sources on the internet, to make technology less intimidating and more interesting.