The Blog

Alan Turing: 60 Years On

Turing committed suicide in 1954 - cyanide poisoning from an apple he had deliberately contaminated - widely seen as the result of his conviction in 1952 of indecency (Turing was gay) and the punitive course of chemical castration he was inflicted with as punishment for his 'crime.'

Saturday 7 June marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Turing's untimely death at only 41 years of age. Though he was a genius and a national hero, he is sadly still not a household name.

This is partly because much of Turing's work was top secret, withheld from public knowledge for decades by the Official Secrets Act. But also because much of what we know about Turing has been defined by the circumstances of the man's tragic death.

Turing committed suicide in 1954 - cyanide poisoning from an apple he had deliberately contaminated - widely seen as the result of his conviction in 1952 of indecency (Turing was gay) and the punitive course of chemical castration he was inflicted with as punishment for his 'crime.'

But though Turing was unquestionably a victim of a terrible and discriminatory law, it's important that we recognise the man's genius, praise him for what he achieved when he was alive and realise why this man's early death was such a loss for us all.

A bit of a mathematical prodigy, Alan Turing first caught the attention of the science community after he wrote a paper called "On Computable Numbers." In this paper, Turing set out conceptually what a computer would be and how it would work.

Sounds impressive enough. But this paper was published in 1936, way, way before the mass production of computers, let alone the internet. It was ahead of its time by decades. And Alan Turing was only 24.

In his paper, Alan introduced two concepts - the "algorithim" and "computing machines." Our world is dominated by these now but back in 1936 this was revolutionary. And such was the brilliance in the paper that it has become the standard definition of computability and would also become the bedrock of artificial intelligence.

Alan believed that computers could learn, that an electronic brain could be created and that this could take on more knowledge than the human brain was capable of, and that it could therefore solve problems that the human brain simply could not even compute. Hence the concept of algorithims.

It was this pioneering work that led to his call up in 1939 to work for GCHQ at Bletchley Park. His task? Create a method, a program, which could crack Enigma - the naval codes being used by the Nazis to wreak terrible damage on the British and Allied fleets.

It is not an exaggeration to say that had these codes not been cracked, Britain may well have lost the war. At least, the country would most certainly have been invaded. As the historian and wartime code-breaker Asa Briggs has said, "You needed exceptional talent, you needed genius at Bletchley and Turing was that genius."

Within three months, Turing had revolutionised the bombe machines that were being used for this work - and he had cracked the code.

There have been whispers from some that perhaps Turing's role has been overrated, that there was more good fortune and luck in the breaking of the enigma code than the public is being led to believe.

Well, there were mistakes made by the Germans, that's true. But opportunities mean nothing unless you're in a place to exploit them and Turing's automation of the process was so profound that it slashed decryption times and removed all guesswork and trial and error. And secondly, there was so much more to Turing's talent than 'just' cracking enigma.

However, such was the value of Turing's work at Bletchley that it was kept secret by the Official Secrets Act, with his major papers only released in 2012. A reflection of his importance, for sure but it was this secrecy that made life so difficult for Turing after the war. Had the public known this man's crucial role, perhaps things would have worked out very differently.

As required, Turing spoke to no-one about the work he had done for GCHQ but after the war ended, he also struggled to find purpose in his life and his work.

No doubt it was hard to find work as meaningful and fulfilling as the work at Bletchley, but his struggles were probably also exacerbated by an inability to talk to anyone about the work he had completed during the Second World War.

But after he accepted a readership at the University of Manchester in 1948, his work became more fruitful.

Turing was committed to the idea that a computer could learn, could be educated to interact with humans rather than simply be a process-driven tool that executed calculations as directed. He built on his pre-war work on artificial intelligence with a paper in 1950 titled, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," which opens with the words: "I propose to consider the question, 'Can machines think?"

In this paper, Turing put forward that rather than building a program to simulate the adult mind, it would be better rather to produce a simpler one to simulate a child's mind and then to subject it to a course of education. The results of this pioneering paper we see every day on social media where our computers do interact with us and they do learn.

You know when iTunes and Amazon look at what you've bought and make suggestions on what else you might like? That's based on Turing's work. And when Facebook and Twitter look at who you follow and what you chat about before sending you prompts on conversations and people you might like to follow? Yup, that's Turing too.

And also the reverse is true.The Turing test was reversed by computer scientists to create captchas so that computer programs could tell the difference between computers and people. So, yes, unfortunately you can thank Turing too every time you have to sit there and figure out one of those images.

In 1999, Time Magazine named Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century and stated: "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 blessed and cursed with one of those extraordinary minds that comes along maybe once or twice in every generation, where a person's capacity for thought is not limited by the world they exist in, but where any and every eventuality is a possibility.

Incredibly Turing was only 38 in 1950, when he wrote that paper. A staggering thought.

But Turing lost his focus, perhaps frustrated with the lack of opportunity and resources to put his method to the test. Or maybe he was becoming increasingly lost generally.

Instead he turned to morphogenesis (the theory that looks at what causes an organism to take its particular shape) rekindling a childhood fascination with biology. In 1952 he published a paper on his work.

Again pioneering, the paper (The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis) served as a basic model in theoretical biology. Some have gone further, claiming it to be the origin of chaos theory.

But we will never know what this incredible brain could have come up with next as only weeks before this paper was published, Turing was convicted and required to start the harrowing process of chemical castration. Two years later, traumatised and alone, Turing committed suicide.

Turing was pardoned on Christmas Eve last year following a high-profile four-year campaign. The length of the campaign gives you some indication of how hard the establishment resisted these attempts.

I wrote about the pardon last year, about how though it was way too late for Turing (and almost insulting in its delay) it was important for the gay community and should have been a stepping stone for the full pardon of every man convicted under that terrible law.

There was talk of more endeavours to raise Turing's profile at the time. I remember an e-petition to get Turing on the £10 note but I don't know if anything came of that. There are rumours that the Apple logo, with a bite taken out of it, was inspired by Turing but it seems that is (sadly) apocryphal.

Token memorials are creeping out slowly - the obligatory blue plaques can now be found on the place of his birth in Warrington Crescent, London and on the house in which he died in Wilmslow.

And there is a bronze statue at the University of Surrey in Guildford, the town where he spent most of his childhood, and the rather sad statue in Sackville Park, Manchester, of Turing sitting on a park bench holding an apple (noticeably paid for through donations rather than public funds).

A plaque at the statue's feet says "Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice." And all of that is true.

We should be doing more. I know there have been temporary exhibitions and I know there is a high-profile movie coming out but it's a travesty that so few know of this man and his work. We should be educating every kid in school about Alan Turing. Maybe then we can find the next one.