Alan Turing would have celebrated his 100th birthday today. Google honors the life and work of a man whose accomplishments were many; a brilliant academic and codebreaker, Turing is also known amongst computer scientists as the father of artificial intelligence.
Little known in life, his work and its significance for computer science has only become notorious in recent decades. Today’s Google Doodle is an interactive HTML5 codebreaking game that simulates the Turing Machine.
At first, the Google logo appears in grayscale. Solving a series of codes turns each letter in the logo to its proper color, with the last code the most difficult to break.
"We thought the most fitting way of paying tribute to Turing’s incredible life and work would be to simulate the theoretical ‘Turing machine’ he proposed in a mathematical paper,” according to a Google blog post. “Visit the homepage today— we invite you to try your hand at programming it. If you get it the first time, try again... it gets harder!"
Turing was a highly intelligent and troubled eccentric, who missed out on much of the accolades and recognition of his work by cutting his own life short in 1954. In spite of his codebreaking prowess, which resulted in the cracking of encrypted German transmissions in World War II, Turing was persecuted in his native England and eventually convicted in 1952 for gross indecency, after admitting to being in a consensual same-sex relationship.
Long Overdue Apology for Alan Turing, Mathematical Genius and Victim of Homophobia
As punishment, the British government sentenced one of the undisputed geniuses of that time to chemical castration, via regular injections of estrogen. Within two years of his sentencing, Turing committed suicide.
The last two years of Turing’s life remain shrouded in mystery. In 1952, he had to stop his work with the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In a series of articles on his life, BBC notes that in 1953, Turing alluded to some type of crisis in his life and suggests that he seemed to have been under intense surveillance.
He took his 1952 and 1953 vacations to Norway and Greece, away from the watchful eyes of the employers for whom he cracked codes and enabled more intelligent warfare against the Germans. BBC surmises that he was “very likely influenced by hearing of the early Scandinavian gay movement.”
In former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s official 2009 apology to Turing, long since deceased, Brown referred to the cultural icon as, “one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction,” Brown wrote. Homosexuality remained a crime in the UK until 1967.
Brown also acknowledged Turing’s commitment to his country through his groundbreaking work, noting, “Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind … It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present.”
Turing Co-Creates the Bombe Machine, Intercepts German War Communications
Turing, alongside chess grand master Hugh O’Donell Alexander, led a team at Bletchley Park responsible for breaking the Enigma cyphers used by the German Army and Air Force during World War II. Turing and fellow codebreaker Gordon Welchman improved upon an electro-mechanical machine called a Bomba to create its next generation, the Bombe, after the German military slightly modified their system, making the original ineffective.
The Bletchley Park National Codes Centre explains how the Bombe worked:
Turing and Welchman exploited the fact that enciphered German messages often contained common words or phrases, such as general’s names or weather reports and so were able to guess short parts of the original message. These guesses were called ‘cribs’. The fact that on an Enigma machine no letter can be enciphered as itself made guessing a small part of the text even easier. It also meant that the potential number of settings that the Enigma could be in on that day was greatly reduced.
Before running the Bombe, the wiring at the back of the machine was connected in accordance with a ‘menu’ drawn up by the code breakers based on cribs. The Bombe found potential Enigma settings not by proving a particular setting, but by disproving every incorrect one in turn.
All 200 Bombe machines were destroyed after the war. Turing died a relative unknown; details of his work in the war and his status as a master in army intelligence were not released publicly until 1974.
Computing Machinery and Intelligence - AI and the Turing Test Are Born
Turing’s 1950 essay, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, first appeared in the journal Mind and opens, “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’” That paper was the basis for the Turing Test, which seeks to determine a machine’s ability to exhibit human behavior, as described below:
According to Turing, the question whether machines can think is itself “too meaningless” to deserve discussion (442). However, if we consider the more precise—and somehow related—question whether a digital computer can do well in a certain kind of game that Turing describes (“The Imitation Game”), then—at least in Turing's eyes—we do have a question that admits of precise discussion. Moreover, as we shall see, Turing himself thought that it would not be too long before we did have digital computers that could “do well” in the Imitation Game.
- Oppy, Graham and Dowe, David, "The Turing Test", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
The merits and limitations of the Turing Test have been argued for more than 60 years. In 2008 and 2010, the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behavior (AISB) held symposiums to discuss and debate the Turing Test, in an effort to see it canonicalized and reconsidered for the 21st century.
A.M. Turing Centenary Celebrations & Vint Cerf’s Dedication to Turing’s Memory
The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) organized a centennial celebration in honor of Alan Turing, which took place June 15 & 16 in San Francisco, California. Events and discussions were live streamed and are available for public viewing on the Turing 100 website.
The Turing 100 organizing committee was chaired by Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet, co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols, and chief Internet evangelist with Google. Cerf won the A.M. Turing Award, given by ACM since 1966 in recognition of contributions to computing and computer science, in 2004. Cerf was also the first author commissioned to write an essay on his computer science predecessor’s legacy in the BBC’s series for Turing Week.
Alan Turing’s life was cut short by his own hand, though undoubtedly due to the horrific and inhumane way he was persecuted and punished because of his sexual orientation. That this largely overshadowed in his lifetime the brilliant work he did to protect his country, and to form the basis of a debate on artificial intelligence that would last for decades, is a travesty.
Today, Google remembers Alan Turing, a selfless man who gave everything he had to computer science and codebreaking, asking not for fame or notoriety, but only the same right to enjoy his life with the person of his choice, much the same as the citizens he served to protect. Turing’s story serves to remind us how far we’ve come, how much we can achieve, and of mentalities to which we must never return.
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