Happy 100th Birthday, Alan Turing

22/06/2012 17:01 | Updated 22 August 2012

Alan Turing is a name with which a great many people are familiar, but probably not enough. A highly accomplished mathematician, codebreaker and computer scientist, he has been hailed as a pioneer and hero in the fields of modern computing and sexual politics. And while you might not think that those two subjects necessarily complement each other in true strawberries-and-cream style, both are vital to understanding and appreciating the man who helped crack the Enigma code during World War II (and pretty much invented robots).

Born on the 23rd June 1912, Turing's world was markedly different from the one in which we live today. In fact, much of the technology which we now take for granted can be traced back to him in some way. Ever heard of an algorithm? You can thank Alan Turing for that little gem, who originated the concept in a paper while at Kings College, Cambridge.

Best remembered for his work at Bletchley Park in wartime, Turing devised the electromechanical Bombe, which was able to find settings for the Enigma machine, enabling encrypted German messages to be deciphered - which proved to be an invaluable resouce.

After the war, Turing went on to explore the possibilities of artificial intelligence, publishing papers on the subject and creating the "Turing Test", which determined whether the responses of an artificial intelligence could be told apart from the responses of a human being. If you think this rings a bell, it is because a similar idea forms a prominent plot point in the science fiction classic Blade Runner.

But Alan's highly celebrated career was marred and ultimately cut short by a tragic personal life. In 1952, his homosexual relationship with Arnold Murray led to a conviction of gross indecency (homosexuality would not begin to be decriminalised until 1967). Alan was offered a choice between imprisonment for his so-called crimes, or chemical castration via oestrogen injections - he ultimately chose hormone treatment over incarceration.

Unfortunately, the fact that Turing had helped save countless lives and secure a win for the Allies during the war did not prevent him from becoming utterly ostracised by his government and peers. He was relieved of his security clearance and forbidden from continuing his work at the Government Communications Headquarters. Two years later, Alan Turing was found dead by his cleaner. The cause was determined to be cyanide poisoning, but whether the death was an accident or suicide is debated to this day.

LGBT campaigners are still petitioning for an official pardon of Turing's indecency charges, although as yet the answer is "no", with Lord McNally defending the government's decision (rather weakly, in this writer's opinion) by stating that he was rightly prosecuted under the law of the era. But while a pardon may not be immediately forthcoming, John Graham-Cumming did at least succeed in procuring a public apology from then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.

Brown responded by writing about Turing at length in a piece in the Telegraph, stating: "Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind's darkest hour." Harder still to believe, as we celebrate all that is great about Britain this year with the Diamond Jubilee and Olympic Games, that a man could suffer so much at the hands of his own country, when it owed him such a debt.

The word "legacy" can be bandied around and overused from time to time, but in this instance it could not be more apt: not just for the debt of thanks we all owe to Alan Turing for his wartime work but also for the opportunity that his life story offers; the opportunity to learn from the mistakes and prejudices of the generations that came before us, and ensure that they are never repeated.

Now I'm going to do the unthinkable and sign off with a few more words from Gordon Brown, because for once I think he got it exactly right: "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."

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