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Alan Turing

Alan TuringAKA Alan Mathison Turing

Born: 23-Jun-1912
Birthplace: London, England
Died: 7-Jun-1954
Location of death: Wilmslow, Cheshire, England
Cause of death: Suicide [1]
Remains: Cremated, Woking Crematorium, Woking, Surrey, England

Gender: Male
Religion: Atheist
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Gay
Occupation: Mathematician, Computer Programmer

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Computing pioneer

Alan Turing was a British mathematician, cryptographer, and computer scientist often credited as the founder of computer science. In 1936 he developed the concept of the Turing Machine and with it the intellectual underpinnings of the modern digital computer. A pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, Turing was keenly involved in the development of the first self-modifying stored program computer. He also proposed a method for determining machine intelligence, the now famous Turing Test. Turing contributed pioneering work in biology in the area of non-linear dynamics. During World War II he was principally responsible for cracking the German Enigma cipher, a development that may have turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies. He was a gifted athlete, nearly qualifying for the 1948 British Olympic track and field team. His best known published works include "On Computable Numbers" (1936) and "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" (1950).

Alan Mathison Turing was born June 23, 1912 in Paddington, London. Although both his parents were English, they had met in India -- returning home to England only for Alan’s birth and early years. Eventually Mr. Turing returned to India, to resume his job in the Indian Civil Service. Mrs. Turing accompanied him. However for the sake of their health and social development Alan and his older brother remained behind in England and their contact with their parents became limited largely to letter writing and holiday visits.

Despite these measures, and his parents’ fond hopes that he would grow up a normal and well-adjusted member of England’s upper middle class, Turing developed into a quirky and eccentric young man with little interest in conformity. Even in his adult years he was socially clueless, strangely dressed (he often wore a tie for a belt), and very often sweaty and out of breath, as he typically sprinted to all his classes and engagements, regardless of distance. He was opinionated, outspoken, a trifle moody, and a homosexual besides.

Although Alan showed early signs of genius (teaching himself to read in just a few weeks), he was frequently at odds with instructors and administrators during his Public School years. His messy penmanship drew continual scorn. And his hopeless obsession with science, when an emphasis on the classics was equated with "education", meant that his brilliance was often overlooked or downplayed. Meanwhile, in his private time he was reading recent works by Albert Einstein and making corollary conclusions that Einstein himself had yet to publish on.

In 1928 Turing met and became close friends with new classmate Christopher Morcom. The two shared countless impassioned conversations about science and mathematics, often passing notes back in forth in class to share commentary on various puzzles and postulates in math or physics. Christopher even invited Alan home to meet his mother, Mrs. Morcom, who was an artist. Soon a deep attachment bloomed between the boys, and Alan developed a purportedly unspoken crush.

But in February of 1930 Christopher died unexpectedly of bovine tuberculosis, an illness which he had contracted years earlier from tainted milk. Deeply affected by the loss, Alan became obsessed with unraveling the nature of consciousness, its structure and its origins. As his conversations with Mrs. Morcom reveal, he longed to understand what had become of Christopher, of that essential aspect of him: mind. Of course once a question piqued Alan’s interest, he focused with singular obsession. And any field of knowledge that might bear relevance had to be explored, its concepts recombined in ways totally his own. Thus he immersed himself in related works of biology, philosophy, metaphysics, and even mathematical logic and quantum mechanics. And because he so enjoyed tinkering with and redesigning various gizmos and mechanical parts, it was natural to him to think about the mind as an intelligent machine, one whose processes could be modeled and predicted with mathematical logic. But of course, how would such a "machine" move from very simplistic and predictable mental operations, to a level of complexity that produced brilliant insights and surprising innovation?

Once he entered King’s College, Cambridge Alan found much freer reign to pursue these subjects, as well as various questions in mathematics that intrigued him. What’s more the mathematics department at King’s College was one of the finest in the world, second only to Göttingen, and he found ample inspiration. His work in the field of probability studies, especially his paper "On the Gaussian error function", eventually netted him both a Smith’s Prize and a fellowship at Cambridge. Significantly, he also found much greater acceptance at Cambridge for his behavioral eccentricities, and for his sexual identity -- despite the fact that homosexuality was still illegal in England.

In 1935, during his post-graduate period at Cambridge, he attended Max Newman’s advanced lecture series "The Foundations of Mathematics". It included much material already familiar to Turing, including the debate between Kurt Gödel and David Hilbert. Of Hilbert’s famous three questions, Gödel had already addressed the first two. But what of the third issue, Decidability? That is, could any given first order assertion be proven using a definite method or algorithm? Suddenly it was clear to Turing that the key lay in first defining the concept of “"definite method".

His mind began to churn away on this problem, and while out for a run one day he hit upon a novel solution. He imagined a machine capable of reading and following very simple instructions. The instructions would be written as symbols on a paper tape or strip. The tape would move past the device’s "head", and the device would read the symbols and follow the instructions. This device, his famous Turing Machine, could only work things through by following an algorithm (unlike the complicated human mind that often arrived at its conclusions in rather strange and unpredictable ways). And using a thought experiment focused around his imagined Turing Machine he was able to explore the limitations of Hilbert’s theory.

By the time his proof – or perhaps one should say disproof – of Decidability cleared all the hurtles for British publication, another mathematician, American Alonzo Church, had beaten him to press with the same conclusion. But Turing’s work, "On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem" (1937), still generated considerable buzz for its innovation and genius. But not only did the paper make an impressive contribution to the field of mathematics, it introduced something entirely new, the forerunner of the modern digital computer.

Up to this point a computing machine was a kind of analog computer, a device constructed to a specific purpose and able to calculate or compute only one particular set of information. The particular physical structure of a specific analog computer precluded its being used to compute or predict other kinds of information. An astrolabe could not be used to tally business profits, for example, and an abacus could not predict the rising and setting of the stars. But Turing envisioned a computing machine whose functioning was governed by a set of instructions (i.e. a computer program), rather than simply by its mechanical form, and thus it could be far more flexible and intelligent, able to tackle all kinds of jobs. But Turing’s vision was far ahead of its time, and realization of anything like a Universal Turing Machine would have to await a drastic leap forward in electronics.

Meanwhile Turing traveled to the U.S, working toward his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Princeton University. But really he was working in two fields at once. For even as he labored on logic and number theory, he was tinkering with the development and application of computing devices. Then, when England became embroiled in World War II, Turing returned home to Cambridge where he was recruited by the Government Code and Cipher School. Working as a cryptographer at the now famous Bletchley Park complex he used his incredible focus and intelligence to crack the seemingly impossible codes of the German Enigma Machine. By locking himself in his room for days at a time he managed to reverse engineer the Enigma Machine -- a stroke of pure genius that allowed the British and their allies to anticipate attacks and other vital information, changing the course of the war. But the requisite secrecy of the Bletchley Park work meant that Turing’s part went unpublicized for many years.

In any event, Turing’s work there proved a great boon to his quest for a workable computer. First, he learned a great deal during this period about electronics, exposed as he was to the absolute cutting edge of developments both in Britain and in the U.S. (Turing served as technical crypto liaison between the two powers.) And secondly, he came to a deeper appreciation of the necessity for a general application computer that could run on programmable software – i.e. one that did not have to be re-hardwired for each job that it performed. What’s more, his superiors now understood the need as well. Finally it appeared as if both funding and advanced electronic resources were available to realize his vision.

After the war Turing was asked to submit his design for such a computer to the National Physical Laboratory in London. He did so, but the project (nicknamed "ACE") became bogged down in bureaucracy and politics and Turing became disillusioned. In 1947 he was allowed to take a break from the NPL and return to Cambridge where he focused on neurology and the notion of an electronic brain. But in 1948 he was enticed to join friend Max Newman at Manchester University, where work was underway on the Automatic Digital Machine (a.k.a. the MADM or the Manchester Mark I), the largest memory computer ever conceived. Turing resigned from the NPL and took the post of deputy director of the Computing Laboratory, contributing principally in the development of the software programming for the MADM project.

Turing meanwhile worked on the problem of artificial intelligence, publishing in 1950 his highly influential "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", which debuted in a philosophical journal, Mind. It was in this paper that he proposed that if a questioner, communicating with a trio of subjects (two human and one computer) via typed responses, could not distinguish which of the subjects was a computer, then the computer could be called intelligent. This "Turing Test" as it is now known, and Turing’s optimism for the future of artificial intelligence, has remained a source of inspiration to AI enthusiasts and researchers. However it has been shown, by John Searle and others, that the Turing Test may not be entirely accurate.

Although Turing’s interest in building and testing new computer prototypes never waned, it became increasingly apparent that his intellect still raced far ahead of what could be accomplished given the electronics of the day. For example, a chess program he designed with D.G. Champernowne in 1948 languished untried until Turing himself took on the role of the computer in a series of 1952 matches. Not surprisingly then, his incredible intellect began focusing on new areas of exploration and discovery.

Intrigued by the apparent expression of Fibonacci numbers within the form and structure of plants, Turing was drawn into the question of why plants and animals developed their particular shape and structure. In an era in which scientists were quick to cite natural selection (relying on reasons of reproductive success, and etc.) as the grand cause of all things -- and the general public still believed the shape of things and creatures had been determined by God Almighty -- Turing ventured out in a different direction entirely. Inspired by biologist D'Arcy Thompson he explored the notion that biological form was a by product of chemical processes. In his paper "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis" (in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1952) he stunned the scientific community with his highly original and thought provoking suggestions. But it would be another 40 years before the field of biology had advanced far enough that scientific evidence could be found to verify the existence of Turing structures and Turing patterns.

But of course Turing’s interest was not happenstance, he was seeking the mathematical interpretation or description of life itself and of the structures that give rise to intelligent beings. Such explorations might provide the further clues he was looking for in his quest to create an artificial intelligence. Sadly his accomplishments were cut short by his death by cyanide poisoning in 1954, allegedly from eating a poisoned apple. Although his death was largely accepted as a suicide, some controversy surrounds the circumstances of his demise.

In 1952 during an investigation of a break-in at his home, Turing had revealed that one of the young men involved in the incident may have been his 19 year-old lover. As homosexual acts were still illegal in England at the time, Turing was arrested and made to stand trial. He pled guilty to 12 counts of indecent acts, and to escape imprisonment he agreed to undergo one year of estrogen injections, intended to dampen his sex drive. One side effect of the treatment, complained Turing, was that he began to "grow breasts".

Once he was a convicted criminal, Turing lost his security clearance and was barred from further cryptographic work with the British government. But because he was a homosexual Turing was doubly stigmatized for it was assumed by security forces that homosexuals were high risk, owing to the threat of blackmail. And although Turing was barred from further government work, he still possessed a great deal of highly classified information. What’s more, as a brilliant cryptologist and computer scientist, Turing might have seemed a tempting asset to foreign governments. Thus there are those that view Turing’s death as an assassination by British special forces, rather than suicide. Meanwhile his mother refused the notion of suicide as well. She postulated that his death was accidental, that his fingers had inadvertently become contaminated by chemicals from his lab (Alan M. Turing, 1959). Curiously, the half eaten apple found with his body was never tested for cyanide.

Although he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1945 for his wartime contributions and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1951, Turing never received full due for his accomplishments. In part this was because so much of his work remained classified, and in part because of the social stigma surrounding his arrest. But it has also been said that Turing was a poor self promoter and that many of his ideas were so forward thinking that they simply went overlooked until consensus and technology caught up to them. Considerable interest in Turing’s life and work was reawakened in 1983 by the publication of Turing: the enigma, by author and Oxford mathematician Andrew Hodges. That biography inspired Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code, which was adapted for television in 1996. Other significant works about Turing include Alan Turing: The Architect of the Computer Age by Ted Gottfried (1996), Turing and the Computer: The Big Idea, by Paul Strather (1999), and The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt (2005). In 1998 the English Heritage association placed a Blue Plaque outside at the site where Alan Turing was born. A statue of Turing, seated on a bench, resides in Sackville Gardens park, near City College in Manchester, England. In 2004 the University of Manchester created the Alan Turing Institute. Part of the research division of the School of Mathematics, it focuses on industrial collaborations. The Loebner Prize contest, held annually, awards a large cash prize to the contestant whose computer comes closest to passing the Turing Test.


[1] One scholar, Jack Copeland, believes there is insufficient evidence for a finding of suicide, and suggests the possibility of accidental inhalation of the cyanide poison that killed him. See Roland Pease, "Alan Turing: Inquest's Suicide Verdict Not Supportable", BBC website, 23 June 2012: "Copeland notes that the nightmare [experimentation] room had a 'strong smell' of cyanide after Turing's death; that inhalation leads to a slower death than ingestion; and that the distribution of the poison in Turing's organs was more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion."

Father: Julius Mathison
Mother: Ethel Sara Turing
Brother: John (b. 1908)
Girlfriend: Joan Clarke (broken engagement)
Boyfriend: Arnold Murray

    High School: Sherborne School
    University: Cambridge University (1934)
    University: PhD, Princeton University (1938)
    University: Manchester University

    Officer of the British Empire
    Indecent Acts 7-Feb-1952, pled guilty to 12 counts
    Pardoned Posthumously (22-Aug-2014)
    English Ancestry Maternal
    Irish Ancestry Maternal



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