23 Jun, 2012

Who was Alan Turing?

Today marks the 100th birthday of Alan Turing. If you haven't heard of him before, then to put it simply, he was a codebreaker credited with saving millions of lives in World War II. But he was much more than just that, he was also a computer pioneer, artificial intelligence theoretician and mathematician, in fact he can be summed up as a genius.

Alan Turing is most remembered for his cryptanalysis work at Bletchley Park, the UK's codebreaking HQ during World War II. He developed the Bombe, a machine that could determine the rotor and plugboard settings of the German Enigma encryption device, so that encrypted messages sent by Germany's armed forces could be decoded by the Allies.

Turing personally broke the Enigma machine code used by German U-Boats, and by 1943 his Bombes were cracking 84,000 Enigma messages a month. Without the ability to break these codes the outcome of World War II would have been very different.

As early as 1936 Turing published a paper, On Computable Numbers, where he introduced the Turing Machine, a hypothetical device that could represent a computing machine, and an accomplishment that laid the foundation for the modern computer.

Turing is also the creator of the Turing Test, a test he introduced in 1950 to determine if an artificial intelligence could be judged intelligent by a human, if that human could not differentiate between responses given by another human and the artificial intelligence. The Turing Test is still in use and discussion widely today.

In 2011 Google helped Bletchley Park to raise funds for the purchase of Turing's papers, to preserve his legacy for generations to come. Google also subsidises the prize money for the Alan M. Turing Award, the highest award by The Association for Computing Machinery, a cool $250,000 prize.

2012 has been dubbed the "Alan Turing Year" by the scientific community, and London's Science Museum is hosting an exhibition until June 2013 of his life and work.

What happened to Alan Turing? Sadly he died in 1954, the coroner's report stated suicide by cyanide poisoning, however in recent years this has been questioned, with theories that his death was nothing more than a simple accident. Cyanide poisoning was the cause of death, but, while a genius he was also a careless experimenter, and as well as using cyanide for his experiments he was known to taste chemicals to identify them.

Sadly we shall never know the truth, however there is one unassailable fact, Alan Mathison Turing pioneered the very technology that many of us today can't live without. If he had lived, who knows what other incredible achievements he would have contributed.