Thinking About Turing


By Tim Moran

Anyone who has spent time in the computing game has heard the name Alan Turing, who many believe is one of the giants of the digital age and arguably the most famous computer scientist of all time. His "Turing Test" is a staple of the artificial intelligence community, though it is as highly criticized as it is widely influential.

Basically, the test he devised in a 1950's paper was designed to determine whether or not machines can think. The validity of the Turing Test, and the question of whether or not machines can really think--and if artificial intelligence has proved that they can--are well beyond the scope of a blog. Suffice it to say there are books, papers and Websites devoted to this topic--at varying degrees of technical depth--including Webopedia and the Wikipedia page about the test.

What is not beyond our scope, however, is that June 23, 2012, is the anniversary of Turing's birthday, and the computing world is not letting it pass unnoticed. One of the main celebrations is being held by the Turing 100 Group, which is holding the Turing Centenary Conference in Manchester, U.K., June 22 to 25. It is being hosted by The University in Manchester, where Turing worked in 1948 to 1954.

According to the site, the conference aims to "celebrate the life and research of Alan Turing" and to "bring together the most distinguished scientists, to understand and analyze the history and development of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence."

Not to be left out, the Association for Computing Machinery, giver of the prestigious A. M. Turing Award since 1960, held an event in mid-June to celebrate the enduring power of Turing's thinking. It brought 34 ACM Turing Award winners from the last 50 years and world-renowned computer scientists and technology pioneers to discuss Turing's legacy and his impact on their work.

According to the ACM: "The computing community celebrates Alan Turing's legacy 100 years after his birth. By pondering whether machines can think, Turing created the foundation for startling innovations that have changed our world: programmable computers, mobile devices, cryptology, artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics and the philosophy of science. Through his genius, the notion of computers exceeding human intelligence has inspired researchers and realists throughout the world since the 1940s, and laid the foundation of today's always-on, interconnected world." An archived Webcast of the some of the event is available here.

In doing a little research for this piece, I discovered some information about Turing that I didn't know. For instance, during World War II, the computer scientist worked on breaking German ciphers at Bletchley Park, Britain's code-breaking center. According to historian and wartime code-breaker Asa Briggs, "You needed exceptional talent, you needed genius at Bletchley, and Turing was that genius."

Finally, and more poignantly, Turing dealt with being gay at a time in Britain when homosexuality was not accepted. Writes the Inquisitr Website: "In 1952, when homosexuality was a crime and considered gross indecency, Turing chose chemical castration rather than a prison sentence. A rocky relationship with a man who attempted to rob him exposed his homosexuality to the public, and Turing was shunned from working within the British government. Two years after his conviction, Turing died in his lab by eating a poisoned apple."

A poison apple? Some believe that Turing committed suicide by re-enacting a scene from his favorite fairy tale, Snow White.

One can only wonder what the mind behind the "thinking machine" was thinking when he took that last, deadly bite.