Alan Turing: The Mind and Man

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Though he didn’t get to enjoy a long life, Alan Turing achieved an array of significant accomplishments in his 41 years spanning mathematics, science, logic, cryptanalysis, and even biology.

The eccentric genius who kept his tea mug chained to the radiator and wore a gas mask on his bicycle commute to combat his hayfever was always eager to solve the next challenging problem—and he certainly did, with enthusiasm and to the biggest scales possible.

Here’s why Alan Mathison Turing was one badass mind and man.

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1. The Father of Computer Science

Computing contributions from Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and countless other brilliant minds wouldn’t have been possible without Alan Turing theories on computing. His 1936 paper, “On Computable Numbers,” introduced the concept of a “Turing machine” — which consisted of symbols being manipulated on a continuous strip of tape based on a system of rules. Turing surmised that the model could be simulated to work with any computer algorithm to carry out a specific function, like solving mathematical equations.

Turing’s idea didn’t end there, though. Instead of one machine dedicated to a specific task, he envisioned one machine that could carry out various tasks via a memory system. Turing called this the “universal computing machine.” The concept would later come to fruition with the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), which wasn’t the first design of an electronic stored-program computer, but it was certainly the fastest — accessed at a speed of 1 MHz with high speed memory of 25 kilobytes.

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2. Cracking the U-Boat Enigma

At the height of World War II, German submarines were sinking 60 ships of cargo per month headed for Britain — putting the country at risk for starvation if the pace continued. The situation was so alarming that even Winston Churchill admitted the German U boat peril was the only thing that ever really frightened him during the war.

The German advantage laid in their cryptic enigma machine, which contained 10,114 variations. Turing worked in the top-secret British government division at Bletchley Park trying to decipher the German Navy’s communication. The code-cracking operation consisted of 12,000 people working three round-the-clock sessions.

In 1939, and just a few weeks after arriving at Bletchley Park, Turing sparked British intelligence efforts with his development of an electromechanical machine called the bombe. The bombe was an improvement of the Polish “bomba” created a year earlier to decode Nazi messages. Upon its implementation in March 1940, a bombe could translate an Enigma key in about an hour. As more bombes were developed, the decryption time decreased. By 1943, over 200 operating bombes were helping the British crack two messages per minute, and over 80,000 messages per month.

Turing’s breakthrough changed the scope of WWII; with Nazi location coordinates known, British ships could navigate away from German submarine striking distance, and U.S. Navy ships could attack. WWII’s momentum, which was looking grim, suddenly shifted to the Allies. It’s estimated that the code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park shortened World War II by two years, and saved anywhere from 14–21 million lives.

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3. More Than a Test

Today’s companies are starting to implement artificial intelligence and deep learning in industries across the board. From analytics and transportation to healthcare and retail, AI is the face of the future. How did we get here? In 1950, Turing kick-started efforts writing a paper called, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which discussed the intelligence of machines. What arose was the Turing Test, which suggested that for a machine to be intelligent, its behavior would need to be indistinguishable from a human. A popular, but reverse example would be the CAPTCHA test, which identifies whether the user is a human or a computer.

Turing wasn’t looking for machines to be geniuses; he wanted them to be normal (and maybe funny):

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

Turing also wrote a chess program in 1950 called the Turbochamp. The program was so advanced that there wasn’t a computer in existence powerful to run it. In 1952, Turing tried running it on a computer but to no avail. Eager to play a game of chess with his creation, he manually ran his program by going through his algorithm and carrying out is instructions on a chessboard. A determined Turing took a half hour per move in the game. The program lost most of the games it played but did so making familiar moves. And it did win a game against the wife of one of Turing’s colleagues.

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4. Morphogenesis

Turing’s mathematical mind wasn’t restricted to technological concepts. In 1952, he extended his theoretical work to biology, with a paper titled, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Turing’s paper talked about the mathematical growth rate of an organism’s patterns (unsurprisingly now called “Turing patterns”) that stem from a uniform state of life (e.g. cheetahs, snails, frogs). Turing’s prediction was that an organism’s stripes, spirals or spots formed were based on active and deactive chemical growth that took place decades before the actual formation of the pattern. Turing’s concept — now known as the reaction-diffusion theory — was proven correct a year later when the structure of DNA was discovered.

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5. The Man

In society, we don’t usually associate smart people with sports and athleticism, let alone a superior mind like Turing’s, but he was actually quite the runner, regularly taking 30-mile runs to clear his stress and mind. It almost went further than a hobby, though.  Turing finished fifth in a qualifying event for the 1948 Olympic games. His time of 2 hours, 46.03 minutes, while not impressive by today’s standards, was only 10 minutes behind the winning time at the 1948 Olympics. A leg injury would force Turing to give up serious running for good, but he’d still participate in occasional races when he could.

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6. Underserved Decline

You’d think a person who provided even half of what Turing did would be given a castle and a lifetime honorable status to his country. Turing, who had always been open about his sexual preferences to friends, became the victim of his own comfortability. What was a routine burglary report ended up, upon questioning, resulting in Turing being charged with gross indecency. Turing had been seeing a 19-year-old boy days prior to the burglary, and he shared the details with police thinking the boy may have been implicated in the crime.

During prosecution, Turing never went back on his actions, and instead of facing imprisonment, chose to receive chemical castration and DET (defunct estrogen treatment). The estrogen shots made him develop breasts and gain weight. In attempting to reduce Turing’s libido. the chemical castration impaired his ability to think and concentrate. With his charge banning him from the United States, stripping his top-level security clearance and humiliating his sense of self, Alan Turing was experiencing a life nobody with his track record should have to face.

I mean, one would think that monumental contributions to modern computing, artificial intelligence and World War II would be enough to solidify anyone as a national hero. Turing didn’t get to enjoy that luxury, though. His wartime efforts went mostly unknown because his top-secret government work at Bletchey Park wasn’t declassified in the 1970s, a few decades after his death. Turing was of the most remarkable thinkers of any time period in history, yet his work and self were largely unknown during his life.

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7. A Bittersweet Admission

It’s hard to imagine that such a brilliant man who accomplished so much was treated so poorly by his country. In 2009, some closure and justice were finally given, after an internet campaign prompted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to officially apologize on behalf of the British Government for how Turing had been treated. In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon. In 2017, a law inspired by Turing’s treatment was enacted, which would retroactively pardon men convicted by old legislation that punished homosexual acts.

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As humans, our lives are subjected to the time period in which we live. Unfortunately for Alan Turing, he lived in the mid-20th century and not 21st-century Though his punishment was unjust, and the end of his life a rocky decline because of it, his legacy is entrenched as one of the most important people to ever live. Turing was a genius, sure, but more importantly, he was a doer.

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”