Remembering Alan Turing at 100

Alan Turing would have turned 100 this week, an event that would have, no doubt, been greeted with all manner of pomp -- the centennial of a man whose mid-century concepts would set the stage for modern computing. Turing, of course, never made it that far, found dead at age 41 from cyanide poisoning, possibly self-inflicted. His story is that of a brilliant mind cut down in its prime for sad and ultimately baffling reasons, a man who accomplished so much in a short time and almost certainly would have had far more to give, if not for a society that couldn't accept him for who he was.

The London-born computing pioneer's name is probably most immediately recognized in the form of the Turing Machine, the "automatic machine" he discussed in a 1936 paper and formally extrapolated over the years. The concept would help lay the foundation for future computer science, arguing that a simple machine, given enough tape (or, perhaps more appropriately in the modern sense, storage) could be used to solve complex equations. All that was needed as Turing laid it out, was a writing method, a way of manipulating what's written and a really long ream to write on. In order to increase the complexity, only the storage, not the machine, needs upgrading.

DNP Remembering Alan Turing at 100

His name will also, no doubt, spark familiarity as part of the Turing test, betraying his pioneering involvement in the field of artificial intelligence, proposing that much debated question, "can machines think?" It's a question (albeit modified into the form "can machines do what we can do?") he sought to solve, offering a way of measuring a computer's intelligence relative to the human variety. Turing's concept, based on a party game called "The Imitation Game," has become synonymous with the concept of determining the humanness of artificial intelligence.

Turing's gifts manifested themselves at an early age, showing tremendous promise in the fields of math and science, in spite of his teachers' focus on the humanities. A great intellectual breakthrough occurred at the tender age of 16, upon being introduced to the works of Albert Einstein. He laid out the basis for what would come to be known as the Turing Machine just ahead of his 24th birthday, tackling German mathematician David Hilbert's rather unwieldy "Entscheidungsproblem."

By 26, Turing was performing cryptanalysis for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at the Bletchley Park estate in Buckinghamshire, the epicenter of the UK's decrypting efforts during the war, and the home of many of the country's most brilliant minds of the era. The gig led to the design of the bombe, a machine used by the allies to decipher Enigma machine-encrypted German military messages in World War II. Hundreds of the devices would be deployed during the war.

Turing continued to develop cryptanalysis methods throughout the war, taking on the German naval Enigma and lending his name out yet again, this time to Turingery, a method of codebreaking developed at the GCCS. Turing's Delilah, a secure, portable communications device was not perfected in time to be adopted for use during the war, though the computer scientist would tap into his knowledge of the field to help develop the secure speech system SIGSALY for Bell Labs.

After his pioneering work in artificial intelligence in the '40s, Turing switched focus yet again, exploring morphogenesis, the study of the development of an organism's shape through biology. It was the field he was fixated on at the time of his death by poisoning. In 1952, Turing, then in his late 30s, was convicted of indecency due to his relationship with another man, sentenced to hormonal treatment that amounted to chemical castration. The sentencing also found Turing stripped of his security clearances, in spite of having been one of the UK's great war heroes. Just ahead of his 42nd birthday, Turing was found dead.

Remembering Alan Turing at 100

Much of Turing's praise has, sadly, come posthumously. In 1966, the Association for Computing Machinery established the prestigious Turing Award for contributions to computing. 1998 saw the addition of a commemorative plaque added to his birthplace, and three years later, the mathematician was memorialized in Manchester, sitting on a park bench, holding an apple (thought to be the conduit for the poison that ended his life). In 2009, more than half a century after biting into the apple, a petition with a thousand signatures made its way to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who formally apologized for the government's "appalling" treatment of one of its most brilliant minds, adding, "you deserved so much better."