A Brilliant Mind of Alan Turing

He is the father of artificial intelligence.

The programming designer of the world’s first commercial computer.

The decoder of the Enigma.

A legendary scientist.

One of the greatest minds of the 20th century,
Alan Mathison Turing was everything but ordinary.

Born in London in 1912 in an upper-middle-class family with no scientific background, Alan was fascinated by science since his childhood. The headmistress of the day school which he attended when he was six years old acknowledged his talent from the beginning, and so did many of his teachers subsequently. Being a young boy interested in science caused many doubts within his family about him ever being able to attend the English Public School, however, at age 13, Alan was accepted into Sherborne, an English independent boarding school for boys. One of the fascinating facts is that his first day at Sherborne matched with the 1926 General Strike in Britain, but determined to attend, Alan rode his bicycle unaccompanied for 60 miles.

Although teachers at Sherborne School placed more interest and prominence on classical studies, Alan’s time spent there paved the way for his future as a scientist, mostly due to his extremely close relationship with his schoolmate, Christopher Morcom, with whom he shared a great interest in mathematics, cryptography, and astronomy. Some argue that Christopher was Alan’s first love and that his death of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 caused great sorrow for Alan, which he coped with by burying himself in books and work on various scientific topics.

By 1934, he graduated from King’s College, Cambridge where he was awarded first-class honors in mathematics. Two years later, he published “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” or better known as “Turing proof”, thus demonstrating the conjecture that some solely mathematical yes-no questions can never be answered by computation due to no existing single algorithm that faultlessly gives a correct “yes” or “no” answer to each example of the problem.

In 1936, he developed a “Turing machine”, which consists of an infinitely long tape with squares and symbols that acts as the memory in any form of data storage. Despite its simplicity, the machine can simulate basically any computer algorithm, no matter how complex it is. This machine became a blueprint for what we nowadays call computers.

He earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Mathematics at Princeton University in 1938, where he deepened his study on cryptology. Although he was given a job position as a postdoctoral assistant at the University, Alan turned the offer down by returning to England.

When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany in 1939, Turing moved to Bletchley Park, where he became the leader of the team in charge of breaking the German ciphers. There, with the help of his fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman, he developed BOMBE, an electro-mechanical machine whose sole purpose was to crack Enigma more successfully than the Polish bomba kryptologiczna. BOMBE was a colossal machine, consisting of three electrically isolated but mechanically connected banks of drums. Each vertical set of three drums, with 36 of them in total, was equivalent to an Enigma. It is believed that Turing’s work on BOMBE shortened the war by two years, with some historians estimating that it saved more than 14 million lives, completely changing the course of World War II.

After he revolutionized cryptography by cracking Enigma, his work in the late 1940s set the foundation for the modern field of computing science and artificial intelligence. During these times, he developed the “Turing test”, originally called the “Imitation game”, an experiment that he proposed due to the addressed problem of artificial intelligence, which was an attempt to delineate a standard for a machine to be called intelligent. It is a test of a machine’s ability to reveal intelligent behavior equivalent to a human.

To date, no AI has passed the Turing test.

Other than being a mathematical prodigy, another interesting fact about Turing was that he was an extremely talented runner, with some saying that he used to run 10 miles between two laboratories in break times, beating his colleagues who used public transport to the office. He also used to run 40 miles from Bletchley to London on occasions, when he was needed for meetings. When asked why he was running so hard his answer was that “he has such a stressful job that the only way he can get it out of his mind is by running hard”.

Unfortunately, this remarkable person was prosecuted just for being different from what was considered “normal” back then. In January 1952, Alan Turing was arrested and charged with gross indecency for having sexual relations with another man. He was sentenced to probation and had to undergo estrogen treatments, which was then considered helpful in preventing homosexual desires, leaving Turing impotent and causing him gynecomastia.

However, this trauma didn’t stop him from working. One of his colleagues and friends said that Turing “dealt with it with as much humor and defiance as you could muster. To his close friends, it was obvious it was traumatic. But in no way did he just succumb and decline. He really fought back, by insisting on continuing work as if nothing had happened.”

Although the information about the significance of his work on helping the UK during World War II was not released to the public until the mid-1970s due to secrecy, Turing is still considered a legend and a war hero among people all around the world to this day.

Followed by multiple Internet campaigns, 61 years after he was convicted and 59 years after his death, Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon in 2013.

Bridgewater Labs decided to celebrate and dedicate this month to Alan Turing, his scientific achievements, and the intellectual heritage he left for the global IT community for eternity. His legacy not only shaped the modern scientific and mathematical fields but improved the quality of life for all of us.

Happy birthday Alan, and thank you for all you had done.

Tatjana Lukic, Project Assistant at Bridgewater Labs

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