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Thinking of Alan Turing

Next week I take a break from my day job and spend a week touring the UK delivering the Turing Lecture. It’s a massive honour to have been asked to do this and an experience I’m really looking forward to. Britain is a beautiful country and, living in the US and visiting only for business as I have for the last few years, I have missed the vistas of my childhood—sure, London’s great and majestic in its own way, but I’m looking forward to almost 24 hours on a train, as we make our way between London, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff. The BCS and IET (who organize the Lecture Series) have also lined up a number of interesting meetings, many with new entrepreneurs or academics in each of these towns and I’m looking forward to hearing about what people are working on.

Turing holds a special place in my personal psyche. I studied Computer Science at King’s College in Cambridge, which happens to be Alan Turing’s old College. If you study somewhere like Cambridge, people tell you that you need to prepare to no longer be the smartest person in the room … this message is rammed home for any Kingsman or woman studying Computer Science treated, as they are, to an endless reminder that they’re following in impossibly large footsteps that they will really never, ever fill. (This is ok: in my experience, a little humility is not a bad thing when you’re 18!) The College’s computer room is called the Turing Room, the Department has its own Turing Room that you pop into for supervisions almost every week, just about every lecture course has a reference to some aspect of his work, you stumble across his portraits in various rooms in College and, even if you try to dodge work as I did and take up rowing, you’ll discover that one of King’s College Boat Club’s seven boat-strong fleet is called … you guessed it, The Turing Machine!

Kingsmen and women aside, no computer scientist should forget Alan Turing. He who invented the computer, set one of its most compelling (and still unresolved) challenges and then, for bonus measure, made unique and critical contributions to ending World War II through his work at Bletchley Park. In equal parts amazingly and tragically, he made all of these contributions by the age of 41 when he took his own life, seemingly driven to despair by a society that refused to understand his homosexuality and instead punished him for it.

Most people I come across know about the Turing Test and the cracking of the Enigma codes, so allow me to indulge a couple of paragraphs here on his first major discovery. For those who don’t know (and shame on you if you are British and/or a Computer Scientist!), in 1936, Turing essentially invented the computer.

In answering an esoteric mathematical question regarding the extent to which one can prove propositions within a well-defined logical system, Turing needed a model to articulate his argument. He decided on an imaginary machine that was a little like a typewriter, but equipped with the ability to read as well as print symbols and a step-by-step method of processing that would allow it to solve problems when appropriately configured. This blueprint – the Turing Machine – forms the basis of all modern computing.

In a century packed with technological advancement, the computer stands tall, a colossus of invention due to the remarkable ubiquity of its utility. In the modern world, computers do a lot of things. Behind the scenes, they control and regulate devices as simple as alarm clocks, as commonplace as telephones, as complex as jumbo jets and as critical as pacemakers. They are used to model and predict the stock market, the weather and the spread of disease, both across continents and within a single organism. IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world champion Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997; in 2009, Google’s computers provided results for 293 million individual searches every single day and, just a few months ago, eHarmony reported that 500 of the people who get married in the US every day first met on their website. Turing was not blind to the societal or commercial utility of his inventions. Writing to his mother in 1936, he described recently completed work on cipher algorithms suggesting that he might be able to ‘sell them to H.M Government for a quite substantial sum’, but I think even he would have been staggered by the reality we live with today; in 2009 the US Federal government alone spent over $180 billion on information technology. Turing’s Machines are everywhere.

Next time you use a computer (and, let’s face it, you’re probably using at least ten reading this), remember Turing and remember also the repulsive, destructive thing that is prejudice.