If you’ve ever used a computer, asked your smartphone a question, or even spent time with your nan or granddad, you owe a debt of gratitude to Alan Turing. You may be familiar with the name, or may have heard of the Turing test of artificial intelligence, but surprisingly few people know his story. Even fewer know the impact that Turing continues to have on our day-to-day lives. June 23 marks the 104th anniversary of Turing’s birth, so we wanted to take a moment to reflect on his legacy and say our own thank you.
Father of modern computer science
When he was just 23, Turing published a paper entitled On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, in which he lays out the basis for what we think of as modern computing. In essence, he proposed that a machine could be given a changeable set of instructions (in a series of 0s and 1s) in order to perform a certain task. What was revolutionary in this idea was the fact that this computing machine didn’t have to physically change in order to perform a given task, it only needed a different set of instructions.
Following on from the basis of this idea, Turing designed a machine, the Automatic Computing Engine, which he envisioned as a device that could store instructions in its memory, and compute anything that was computable. Although his design ended up being built into more of a calculator than the artificial brain that Turing imagined, it still helped to pave the way for what we think of as modern computing. Fast-forward a few decades, and that idea has evolved into the engine behind everything from automating the manufacturing of your car to sharing high-resolution photos of your dinner with the world via the internet.
Cortana thanks you, too
Turing’s contributions didn’t just end with the development of what we think of as the modern computer. The way he thought about computing continues to shape the field of machine learning. During his time at Britain’s code-breaking centre, Bletchley Park, during the Second World War, he wrote and spoke often about the idea of machines that would be able to use human reasoning to solve problems. In 1950, he published a paper entitled Computing and Machine Intelligence in which he proposed the “imitation game”: a test in which a human interrogator would not be able to discern between the responses of a human and a computer. This become known as the Turing Test.
In many ways the Turing test remains a milestone for machine learning: the ability for us to interact with machines in a way that’s indistinguishable from our human interactions. While the idea of saying “please” and “thank you” to your machine may seem unusual to some of us now (unless you’re particularly polite), researchers are continuing to make more personalised and natural interactions between humans and machine learning platforms such as Cortana, Microsoft’s intelligent personal assistant. In fact, in China, people are interacting with machine learning chatbot XiaoIce to discuss everything from shopping for shoes to the intimate details of a recent break-up.
The Bombe that saved millions
Perhaps one of the most important legacies of Alan Turing is the work he did during the Second World War. But in this case, his contribution was all about unlocking the mysteries of a very different type of mechanical intelligence: the Nazi Enigma machine. Turing, along with his fellow code-breakers at Bletchley Park, cracked the highly sophisticated cipher machine and decoded tens of thousands of German military messages. Dubbed “the Bombe”, this machine and the work it achieved was able to end the war up to three years early. Given that the war cost the UK more than 400,000 lives and over £1 trillion (inflation adjusted), with an exponentially higher global human and financial toll, it’s safe to say that by ending the war earlier, Turing’s work helped save millions of lives.
A lasting legacy
In his short life, Turing had a profound impact on the way we live and work. There’s a sad irony for Turing, though. Even though he dedicated so much of his life, and quite frankly his genius, to pushing the boundaries of science, and to fighting against the forces of tyranny and fascism, he was unable to continue his contributions to society because he lived in a world that would not accept his sexuality. While he was later issued posthumous government and royal apologies, it’s hard not to wonder what further contributions he would have made to the world had he lived in a different era?
Regardless of what could have been, we celebrate Turing’s contributions and lasting legacy every time we pick up our smartphones or type on our keyboards.
Thank you Alan Turing.
By Adrian Alleyne, Storyteller and Social Media Writer for Microsoft