Alan Turing's Life, Contributions, and Legacy

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18th Aug 2017 Computer Science Reference this

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Our daily lives are filled with technology. We wake up on time thanks to the alarms we set on our phone. We can find the fastest route available to get to where we need to go using the GPS. We can work anywhere and whenever we want, using our portable laptops. Sometimes we don’t know how to spell a word, or know the answer to a question, and we are able to search it up on Google and find an answer. Technology makes our lives easier. It would be hard to live in a world without the conveniences we have today. We owe a lot of our modern advancements to Alan Turing, one of the most prominent computer scientists in the early 1900s. Turing created the concept of a Universal Turing machine, what is known as a computer today. Moreover, Turing also led the philosophy to artificial intelligence, much of what our newest technologies incorporate nowadays. While he did not get to witness the potential and great reality of his concepts today, his vision created a lasting legacy that future computer scientists continue to build on and explore.

Alan Mathison Turing was born on June 23, 1912 in Paddington, London (Hodges). Turing’s father, Julius Mathison Turing, served the British Indian Civil Service where he had met Turing’s mother, Ethel Sara Stoney, who was the daughter of the chief railway engineer in the Madras Presidency (Hodges). Alan Turing also had an older brother, John Turing. Turing grew up in the upper-middle-class, and did not see his parents much (Hodges). Accordingly, he was sent to Sherborne School, a boarding school. At Sherborne School, Turing focused on mathematics and science, studying ahead of what the school expected the students to learn (Hodges). In his classes, Turing met Christopher Morcom, which he found to be an equal peer in his interest in mathematics and science (Hodges). Unfortunately, 2 years after they had met, Morcom passed away, which caused great trauma for Turing (Hodges).

After his best friend’s death, Turing went to King’s College in Cambridge, where the two intended to go together before Morcom’s untimely death (Hodges). At King’s College, he was more encouraged to endeavor in his studies and research rather than at Sherborne (Hodges). Turing was well read in principles of math and quantum mechanics (Hodges). Turing studied and was influenced works by other mathematicians and scientists such as von Neumann and A. S. Eddington (Hodges). Turing was awarded a Fellowship of King’s College in 1935 (Hodges). A year later, he received a Smith’s Prize for his research on probability theory (Hodges).

While attending King’s College, Alan Turing was involved with the Anti-war movement of 1933, although he was not deeply into politics (Hodges). The Anti-war movement that Turing was associated with was in between the two world wars. In the 1930s, people rebelled against further warfare because of the consequences of the First World War. Because the First World War caused great casualties and suffering, people resisted fighting in future wars, and advocated for peace instead. The Anti-war movement led to new reason of thoughts such as Marxism and pacifism, which Turing did not participate in (Hodges).

The Second World War broke out in 1939 and ended shortly 6 years after. During that time, Turing worked in secret as a cryptographer for the British Intelligence, among other top cryptographers (Hodges). Ultimately, his mission was to crack Germany’s Enigma cipher, the most complex cipher at its time, which was the key to accessing important German troops’ plan. Turing managed the impossible and cracked the code. By doing so, he saved many Allied lives. Turing was hugely responsible for the outcome of the war. While it is not confirmed, Winston Churchill supposedly said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany (Schilling). Turing’s involvement with the Second World War and working with the British government allowed him to have funding and thus influenced him to work on several other projects.

Turing had many great contributions during the Second World War. In order to crack the Enigma, Turing and his colleague Gordon Welchman invented the Bombe, which deciphers the encrypted messages from the Enigma sent by the Germans (IWM). Before the invention of the Bombe, the Enigma would have been impossible to crack, as the encryption method was changed daily. Consequently, the Bombe drastically reduced the workload required to crack the Enigma, and allowed the British to have German’s intelligence which was a huge advantage. Turing shared his work with other allied countries, which led them to work on different versions of the Bombe (IWM).

One of Turing’s greatest contributions is the Universal Turing Machine. Turing started working on it in 1936 before the Second World War, and continued to work on it after the war (IWM). Turing first had the idea of a Turing machine, a machine that is capable of performing a computational task. There are many possible tasks that a Turing Machine can compute, thus there are infinite possibilities of Turing machines (Hodges). Alan Turing conceptualized the Universal Turing machine, which would perform any task one Turing machine would be able to do (Hodges). Think of a Turing machine as a function on a calculator, such as adding or subtracting. The Universal Turing machine is the calculator itself, which comprises many functions. The Universal Turing machine was a single machine that had the potential to do many tasks.

Many computer scientists may argue Alan Turing is the inventor of the first modern computer. His idea of the Universal Turing machine is the essence of the modern computer. Computers today have many applications, such as a calculator, a web browser, or a music player. These applications could be independent machines, however they are encapsulated into one machine, which is the idea of the Universal Turing machine at heart. Without Turing’s ingenious concept, we might not have the modern computer today.

Another big contribution by Alan Turing is the Turing Test. The Turing Test comes from Turing’s Computing Machinery and Intelligence paper written in 1950 (Hodges). Turing created a hypothesis that a Turing machine can be created to have intelligence. According to John M. Kowalik, “The test consisted of a person asking questions via keyboard to both a person and an intelligent machine. He believed that if the person could not tell the machine apart from the person after a reasonable amount of time, the machine was somewhat intelligent.” The Turing Test challenges the idea of an intelligent machine, or at least convince a human it has intelligence.

Turing has left a great legacy for the progress of computer science. Based on his concepts of the Universal Turing machine, later computer scientists were inspired computational machines that could perform multiple tasks. The idea of a Universal Turing machine has not changed, but its capabilities have certainly evolved as technology evolves. From the clunky desktops in the late 1900s, to the rail thin laptops we have today, they were all inspired by Turing’s concept of the Universal Turing machine. Today, computer scientists are still exploring the infinite possibilities of the functionalities of a computer, as Turing theorized.

The Turing Test spawned a new field of study in computer science. Turing left future computer scientists the ambitious idea of artificial intelligence. Although it was not achieved in his lifetime, today we have many applications of artificial intelligence that are all based on the fundamental idea of the Turing Test. Cars that can autonomously drive, Siri on the iPhone, and Google search are all examples of artificially intelligence led by the legacy of Turing. Scholars are still finding ways to implement artificial intelligence into our interactions in daily life. What Turing has started blossomed into a new form of technology that has transformed the way we cooperate with machines.

In conclusion, Alan Turing deserves much appreciation for his works in his lifetime. Turing’s invention of the Bombe allowed the British to decipher the Enigma and led to victory for the Allied forces. The Universal Turing machine was arguably the first concept of the modern computer. The Turing Test led to talk and future work by computer scientists in artificial intelligence. Turing had a grand vision for how machines could aid us in the future. By following his legacy, computer scientists continue to build on the foundation that his concepts had laid out. Even when technology progress further, Turing’s vision will never be forgotten. His ideas have transcended in new forms. Many science fiction novels, philosophy, and movies can be accredited to Turing’s concepts. It is unfortunate that his contributions were not greatly recognized in his own lifetime as it is today. Turing faced many adversities with authorities concerning his sexuality with men, which was shunned mid-1900s in England (Hodges). Sadly, Turing passed away on June 8, 1954, due to cyanide poisoning, which was believed to be suicide (Hodges). Despite the challenges in his life, Turing still fathered many revolutionary ideas in computer science. Turing leaves us behind with his legacy, in promising hope for a greater future.

References

Hodges, Andrew. “Alan Turing – a Short Biography.” Alan Turing – a Short Biography. Turing.org.uk, 1995. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Hodges, Andrew. “The Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook.” Alan Turing Scrapbook – Turing Test. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

“How Alan Turing Cracked The Enigma Code.” Imperial War Museums. N.p., 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Kowalik, John M. “Alan Turing.” N.p., 1995. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Schilling, Johnathan. “Churchill: Turing Made the Single Biggest Contribution to Allied Victory.” The Churchill Centre. The International Churchill Society, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

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