Today we tell you the story of Alan Turing, British mathematician and logician, one of the pioneers of computer science and artificial intelligence.
And we do it for three reasons: one because we remember the disappearance of this genius, which took place on 7 June 1954. The other is because, without him, perhaps we would not be publishing this article with a PC.
The last reason, but not least, is because we are in the month of Pride: because of his homosexuality, Turing suffered the worst torture (a bit like Oscar Wilde if you remember). He was rehabilitated only half a century after his death, now we tell you everything.
The young Alan Turing
Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June 1912 in Maida Vale, a district of London. The son of an Indian army officer, Alan Turing, just 1 year old, is entrusted to a retired couple who will raise him, as well as his brother John.
His mother left, in fact, to join his father, a colonial administrator in Madras. His parents did not return to England permanently until 1926 (but they would see their children every year during the holidays).
Little Alan was a rather lonely child, even as an adult he will have difficulty interacting with colleagues, while not lacking a sense of humor. Which is not uncommon among people who fall into the autistic spectrum. In fact, Turing suffered from Asperger’s, as does our contemporary Elon Musk.
Refractory to schooling, the young Alan shows a total lack of interest in literary subjects, but a strong taste for scientific disciplines, in particular for chemistry, and a real predisposition for mathematics.
In 1931 he was admitted to King’s College in Cambridge to continue his studies in mathematics; he obtained his license there in 1934. His readings as well as the courses of the mathematician Max Newman and the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington made him discover the great questions of modern science.
David Hilbert’s work on researching the foundations of mathematics and Johann von Neumann’s on the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics stimulated his interest in the study of determinism in physics and mathematics.
A lecturer at King’s College in 1935, he left the following year for Princeton, United States, to prepare for a doctorate in mathematical logic under the direction of Alonzo Church. After defending his thesis, he returned to Cambridge in July 1938.
The birth of computer science
One of the problems that Turing studies is that, posed by Hilbert, of the possibility that a mathematical proposition is validated as true or false by an algorithm.
An article written before his departure for the United States but published only in January 1937, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, constitutes one of his most important contributions to mathematical logic.
The author develops the concept of “universal” calculating machine (Turing machine), which is the basis of all theories on automata and paves the way for many developments in algorithm theory.
Today, an operation can only be performed on a computer if an equivalent Turing machine is present. As all computers are material realizations of this universal machine, Turing can be considered the founder of computer science.
Alan Turing, WWII and Enigma
During World War II, Turing contributed to the Allied effort within the British cipher service. He developed machines and methods that made it possible to decipher the secret codes of the Enigma machine used by the German navy to communicate with its submarines.
Secretly sent to the United States, Turing worked at the Bell Laboratories in New York (1943). Here he regularly met Claude Elwood Shannon, one of the founders of information theory.
With him he discussed designs for machines that would mimic the functioning of the human brain. After his return to England, Turing designed and built an electronic machine capable of encrypting the human voice. Something similar, if you remember, was done by Louis Braille in the creation of the writing for the blind that bears his name.
To lighten the atmosphere, we would like to tell you that the Zoa Studio Team also had something to do with the Enigma machine. Copies of this are in fact used in the basement of the London club The Bletchley o decipher the codes that allow you to order cocktails. All in a smoky atmosphere and themed clothing. A must try!
The postwar period and the birth of the computer
In 1945 he resumed his research on the design of calculating machines at the British National Physical Laboratory. The project for the realization of an electronic computer that he presented in 1946 marked, together with that of John von Neumann a few months earlier in the United States, the birth certificate of the computer. In 1947 Turing returned to King’s College and took a year off to study physiology and neurology.
His interest in animal or vegetable growth phenomena develops; would become his field of research from 1951. In the autumn of 1948, he joined the computer science team of the University of Manchester and, in the next two years, he devoted himself to the work of electronic programming, taking an interest in artificial intelligence .
In 1951 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. However, the revelation of his homosexuality will soon destroy his career. Arrested and charged in 1952 following an affair with a young man, he avoided prison by agreeing to undergo chemical castration treatment, but was barred from major government projects.
Death and legacy of Alan Turing
His body and mind undergo significant changes during this time. In 1953, after undergoing this heavy treatment, Alan Turing resumed his scientific work. However, he committed suicide by poisoning on June 7, 1954 in Wilmslow.
According to the official thesis, Alan Turing ate an apple soaked in cyanide. Some see it as a symbol, the Apple company logo. Other members of his entourage remain convinced that his death was an accident linked to negligence: Turing in fact used cyanide for his experiments.
Alan Turing’s mother will support the thesis of the accident, stating that her son used to store chemicals in the house without any precautions.
Following numerous petitions calling for Turing’s rehabilitation, Queen Elizabeth II pardoned him in 2013. The British government now considers his sentence unfair and discriminatory and pays tribute to his genius who helped save thousands of lives.
Since 1966, the Turing Prize has been awarded annually to one person for their ability to make a significant contribution to the world of computing. There is also an Alan Turing Institute, the specific role of which is to provide the expertise and fundamental research into data science and artificial intelligence needed to solve real-world problems.
Additionally in 2015, Alan Turing’s biography sees the light on screen in the movie Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.