Alan Turing's Biography

Alan Turing Alan Turing

Alan Turing

About

  • Born
    23 June 1912
  • Died
    07 June 1954
  • Sex
    Male
  • Nationality
    British
  • Citizen
    Great Britain

Computers would probably have been non-existent if it wasn't for famous British mathematician, Alan Turing. Having been a child prodigy, he went on to pursue his PhD from the 'Princeton University'. Soon, he became an important member of a group of code-breakers in the 'Government Code and Cypher School' ('GC&CS') in Bletchley Park. He was given the daunting task of deciphering the ever-changing German codes sent through the ingenious machine, 'Enigma'. Alan proved the almost impossible task, possible with his 'bombe' device, which used a technique called 'Banburismus'. Eventually this mathematician and his team of code-breakers were successful in defeating the 'Enigma'. However, two code-breakers from his team were found out to be Soviet spies, and thus the work was declared highly confidential. For a long time, no records of Turing's work were available, and the 'Official Secrets Act' prohibited him from talking about his work to anyone. His homosexuality caused him to be convicted, though the British government has apologized posthumously in recent times. His works and life has recently been popularized by the ‘Academy Award’ winning movie, ‘The Imitation Game’, released in 2014. Read on and explore the life and works of this brilliant mathematician and code-breaker.

Early Life

English scientist Alan Turing was born Alan Mathison Turing on June 23, 1912, in Maida Vale, London, England. At a young age, he displayed signs of high intelligence, which some of his teachers recognized, but did not necessarily respect. When Turing attended the well-known independent Sherborne School at the age of 13, he became particularly interested in math and science.

After Sherborne, Turing enrolled at King's College (University of Cambridge) in Cambridge, England, studying there from 1931 to 1934. As a result of his dissertation, in which he proved the central limit theorem, Turing was elected a fellow at the school upon his graduation.

In 1936, Turing delivered a paper, "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem," in which he presented the notion of a universal machine (later called the “Universal Turing Machine," and then the "Turing machine") capable of computing anything that is computable: The central concept of the modern computer was based on Turing’s paper.

Over the next two years, Turing studied mathematics and cryptology at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1938, he returned to Cambridge, and then took a part-time position with the Government Code and Cypher School, a British code-breaking organization.

Cryptanalysis and Early Computers

During World War II, Turing was a leading participant in wartime code-breaking, particularly that of German ciphers. He worked at Bletchley Park, the GCCS wartime station, where he made five major advances in the field of cryptanalysis, including specifying the bombe, an electromechanical device used to help decipher German Enigma encrypted signals. Turing’s contributions to the code-breaking process didn’t stop there: He also wrote two papers about mathematical approaches to code-breaking, which became such important assets to the Code and Cypher School (later known as the Government Communications Headquarters) that the GCHQ waited until April 2012 to release them to the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

Turing moved to London in the mid-1940s, and began working for the National Physical Laboratory. Among his most notable contributions while working at the facility, Turing led the design work for the Automatic Computing Engine and ultimately created a groundbreaking blueprint for store-program computers. Though a complete version of the ACE was never built, its concept has been used as a model by tech corporations worldwide for several years, influencing the design of the English Electric DEUCE and the American Bendix G-15—credited by many in the tech industry as the world’s first personal computer—among other computer models.

Turing went on to hold high-ranking positions in the mathematics department and later the computing laboratory at the University of Manchester in the late 1940s. He first addressed the issue of artificial intelligence in his 1950 paper, "Computing machinery and intelligence," and proposed an experiment known as the “Turing Test”—an effort to create an intelligence design standard for the tech industry. Over the past several decades, the test has significantly influenced debates over artificial intelligence.

Homosexuality, Conviction and Death

Homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s, so when Turing admitted to police—who he called to his house after a break-in—in January, 1952, that he had had a sexual relationship with the perpetrator, 19-year-old Arnold Murray, he was charged with gross indecency. Following his arrest, Turing was forced to choose between temporary probation on the condition that he receive hormonal treatment for libido reduction, or imprisonment. He chose the former, and soon underwent chemical castration through injections of a synthetic estrogen hormone for a year, which eventually rendered him impotent.

As a result of his conviction, Turing's security clearance was removed and he was barred from continuing his work with cryptography at the GCCS, which had become the GCHQ in 1946.

Turing died on June 7, 1954. Following a postmortem exam, it was determined that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. The remains of an apple were found next to the body, though no apple parts were found in his stomach. The autopsy reported that "four ounces of fluid which smelled strongly of bitter almonds, as does a solution of cyanide" was found in the stomach. Trace smell of bitter almonds was also reported in vital organs. The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was asphyxia due to cyanide poisoning and ruled a suicide. 

In a June 2012 BBC article, philosophy professor and Turing expert Jack Copeland argued that Turing's death may have been an accident: The apple was never tested for cyanide, nothing in the accounts of Turing's last days suggested he was suicidal and Turing had cyanide in his house for chemical experiments he conducted in his spare room.

Awards, Recognition and Royal Pardon

Shortly after World War II, Alan Turing was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his work. For what would have been his 86th birthday, Turing biographer Andrew Hodges unveiled an official English Heritage blue plaque at his childhood home. In June 2007, a life-size statue of Turing was unveiled at Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire, England. A bronze statue of Turing was unveiled at the University of Surrey on October 28, 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Additionally, the Princeton University Alumni Weekly named Turing the second most significant alumnus in the history of the school - James Madison held the number 1 position.

Turing was honored in a number of other ways, particularly in the city of Manchester, where he worked toward the end of his life. In 1999, Time magazine named him one of its "100 Most Important People of the 20th century," saying, "The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine." Turing was also ranked 21st on the BBC nationwide poll of the "100 Greatest Britons" in 2002. By and large, Turing has been recognized for his impact on computer science, with many crediting him as the "founder" of the field.

Following a petition started by John Graham-Cumming, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown released a statement on September 10, 2009 on behalf of the British government, which posthumously apologized to Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual. "Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated," Brown wrote in the statement. "While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.

"This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue. But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind," Brown stated. "It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II posthumously granted Turing a rare royal pardon almost 60 years after he committed suicide. Three years later, on October 20, 2016, the British government announced “Turing’s Law” to posthumously pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted for homosexual acts when it was considered a crime. According to a statement issued by Justice Minister Sam Gyimah, the law also automatically pardons living people who were “convicted of historical sexual offenses who would be innocent of any crime today.

Trivia

This famous British mathematician was also a fast long-distance runner, who appeared for the 'British Olympic' try-outs in 1948. He lost out to famous runner Thomas Richards, falling short by a meagre 11 minutes.

Personal Quotes

1. “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” 

2. “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” 

3. “I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” 

4. “Those who can imagine anything, can create the impossible.” 

5. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” 

6. “Finding such a person makes everyone else appear so ordinary…and if anything happens to him, you’ve got nothing left but to return to the ordinary world, and a kind of isolation that never existed before.” 

7. “The original question, 'Can machines think?' I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.” 

8. “The isolated man does not develop any intellectual power. It is necessary for him to be immersed in an environment of other men, whose techniques he absorbs during the first twenty years of his life. He may then perhaps do a little research of his own and make a very few discoveries which are passed on to other men. From this point of view the search for new techniques must be regarded as carried out by the human community as a whole, rather than by individuals.” 

9. “I am not very impressed with theological arguments whatever they may be used to support. Such arguments have often been found unsatisfactory in the past. In the time of Galileo it was argued that the texts, 'And the sun stood still... and hasted not to go down about a whole day' (Joshua x. 13) and 'He laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not move at any time' (Psalm cv. 5) were an adequate refutation of the Copernican theory.” 

10. “A very large part of space-time must be investigated, if reliable results are to be obtained.” 

11. “It seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers… They would be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage therefore, we should have to expect the machines to take control.” 

12. “I've now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against. I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man. The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but haven't the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I've not found out.” 

13. “Do you know why people like violence? It is because it feels good. Humans find violence deeply satisfying. But remove the satisfaction, and the act becomes hollow.” 

14. “The popular view that scientists proceed inexorably from well-established fact to well-established fact, never being influenced by any unproved conjecture, is quite mistaken. Provided it is made clear which are proved facts and which are conjectures, no harm can result. Conjectures are of great importance since they suggest useful lines of research.” 

15. “Let us return for a moment to Lady Lovelace’s objection, which stated that the machine can only do what we tell it to do. One could say that a man can "inject" an idea into the machine, and that it will respond to a certain extent and then drop into quiescence, like a piano string struck by a hammer. Another simile would be an atomic pile of less than critical size: an injected idea is to correspond to a neutron entering the pile from without. Each such neutron will cause a certain disturbance which eventually dies away. If, however, the size of the pile is sufficiently increased, the disturbance caused by such an incoming neutron will very likely go on and on increasing until the whole pile is destroyed. Is there a corresponding phenomenon for minds, and is there one for machines? There does seem to be one for the human mind. The majority of them seem to be "sub critical," i.e. to correspond in this analogy to piles of sub-critical size. An idea presented to such a mind will on average give rise to less than one idea in reply. A smallish proportion are supercritical. An idea presented to such a mind may give rise to a whole "theory" consisting of secondary, tertiary and more remote ideas. Animals’ minds seem to be very definitely sub-critical. Adhering to this analogy we ask, "Can a machine be made to be super-critical?” 

16. “Let us return for a moment to Lady Lovelace’s objection, which stated that the machine can only do what we tell it to do. One could say that a man can “inject” an idea into the machine, and that it will respond to a certain extent and then drop into quiescence, like a piano string struck by a hammer. Another simile would be an atomic pile of less than critical size: an injected idea is to correspond to a neutron entering the pile from without. Each such neutron will cause a certain disturbance which eventually dies away. If, however, the size of the pile is sufficiently increased, the disturbance caused by such an incoming neutron will very likely go on and on increasing until the whole pile is destroyed. Is there

a corresponding phenomenon for minds, and is there one for machines? There does seem to be one for the human mind. The majority of them seem to be “sub-critical,” i.e. to correspond in this analogy to piles

of sub-critical size. An idea presented to such a mind will on average give rise to less than one idea in reply. A smallish proportion are supercritical. An idea presented to such a mind may give rise to a whole “theory” consisting of secondary, tertiary and more remote ideas. Animals’ minds seem to be very definitely sub-critical. Adhering to this analogy we ask, “Can a machine be made to be super-critical?”

17. “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence.” 

18. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagined anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”

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