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Thanks for Today Alan Turing

You are reading this on a tablet, a handheld device or perhaps simply a desktop on which you may later stream a movie, download a book, email photos to a friend on the other side of the world, or book a flight to see that friend. If asked who you would thank for these technological marvels, who’s name would pop into your head? Steve Jobs? Maybe Robert Noyce, inventor of the integrated circuit. How about the scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency (DARPA) who laid the foundation for what became the Internet? Or perhaps, if you saw Google’s doodle today, you’d know to give credit to Alan Turing.

Turing was born on this date exactly 100 years ago. An eccentric genius, Turing, perhaps more than anyone in this century, can be credited for conceiving and creating the basis for the modern computing ecosystem; the algorithm, artificial intelligence, artificial language, the machine itself which bore his name. If no Turing, then no Microsoft, no Google, no Facebook.  “This was not just the first man to walk over the landscape, but this was the man who put the landscape in place,” host Scott Simon summed up in a short piece on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday today.

Turing, an Englishman, was a mathematician by training. However, the way he channeled his boundless aptitude and curiosity gave way to entirely new ways of thinking about language, knowledge and communication, and the relationships between humans and machines, making him a philosopher as well. You can probe these concepts in the book The Information: A History, a Theory a Flood, by James Gleick. What’s more, his code breaking during World War II, played no small part in the Allies’ victory.

A man so ahead of his time was perhaps doomed to be a victim of his time. His acknowledgement of his homosexuality led to the revocation of his security clearance by British authorities. Forced to endure hormonal treatment and treated like a criminal, he endured this indignity for only two years before (likely) committing suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide a few weeks before his 42nd birthday.

Would someone else have dreamed of and reasoned his or her way to the breakthroughs that put the landscape in place for today’s world that is so defined by information technology? It is possible but not certain. Alexander Pope penned a couplet in homage to Sir Isaac Newton that proclaims, “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in the night. God said, ‘Let Newton Be,’ and all was light.” All due respect to Newton, he discovered mathematical truths that existed. Turing, using Newton’s calculus to be sure, devised something that didn’t exist in any natural state. He conceived of a machine that could be programmed to think and then showed it could be achieved. That is true innovation.  Happy Birthday and thank you Dr. Turing.

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  • It is an interesting thought experiment to consider how the world would be different without a particular individual. I tend to think the general progress of science rarely depends on one individual, even if a particular individual’s contributions were monumental. For example, without Bill Gates we would certainly not have Microsoft or the Windows platform, but we would still have computer operating systems. Alan Turing helped build the field of computer science and gave us fundamental concepts that are still taught in classrooms today. Without him, these elegant formulations would not exist, but I suspect others would have eventually paved the way in his absence. This does not mean that we are all not better off because of him. Success has a thousand fathers, but not all of them get recognized. Alan Turing deserves recognition because the depth and breadth of his contributions during his short life prove that he wasn’t just in the right place at the right time, but a true genius of his era.