My Heritage Hero: Alan Turing

Alan Turing is one of the world’s most important historic figures as well one of The University’s greatest icons.  As a pioneering mathematician, computer scientist and theoretical biologist, he is one of the most accomplished scientists of all time and his work has affected everyone alive today.  Alan Turing truly represents the Manchester spirit and history with its’ commitment to great example of scientific excellence.

Cracking the Enigma Code

bletchley-park

Turing’s most famous work was carried out during World War II in Bletchley Park, the home of Britain’s efforts to break German codes encrypted using Enigma machines.  To reveal the messages in the codes, Turing led a team of cryptanalysts to develop a codebreaking machine.  This became renowned as the world’s first computer and heralded Turing as the parent of Computer Science.  Most historians agree that his inventions shortened the war by at least two years and saved over 14 million lives, making him one of the 20th Century’s biggest heroes.

A little known fact about Turing is that as well as being a mathematical mastermind, he was also a high-level athlete, and occasionally ran 64 km from Bletchley to London.

After the war, Turing moved to London where he continued to expand his research into computers and produced a paper detailing the first designs of a stored-program computer.

Creator of Artificial Intelligence

Alan_Turing_Olympic_Torch

Turing came to the Victoria University of Manchester in 1948 where he was appointed Reader in the School of Mathematics, and soon became Deputy Director of its Computing Machine Laboratory.  During his time in Manchester, he produced the Manchester Mark 1 – the first stored-program computer ever made.

Whilst in Manchester, Turing conducted some of the first mathematical investigations into Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), which describes a man-made machine that can perceive its environment, learn, and be able to problem solve.  Turing’s theory of computation states that a machine capable of switching between simple symbols, such as the binary ‘0’ and ‘1’, could simulate any mathematical deduction or process of formal reasoning.  This theory, in addition to other discoveries in cybernetics and neurology, led researchers to hypothesise about creating an electronic brain based on binary code.

AI raises many questions about thought, how we define intelligence, and the differences between human and digital consciousness.  To address these Turing created the Turing test, where a machine can be said to be intelligent and “think” if a human in conversation with it couldn’t tell if it was human or not.

Over half a century later, A.I. is still a subject of much debate and controversy, but the Turing test continues to be a significant factor in these discussions.

Today, A.I. has hundreds of applications, such as in image recognition, search engines like Google, and even electronic gaming.  A.I. technology is advancing all the time and will have a far greater presence in our lives in the future, as it has the potential to be used in self-driving cars, medical diagnosis, finance, and more.

Persecuted for his sexuality

Just before Christmas in 1951, Turing was walking down Oxford Road when he met Arnold Murray outside what is now the Dancehouse Theatre.  They later entered into a relationship together, which was then revealed by the police whilst investigating a burglary into Turing’s house.  Homosexuality was outlawed at the time and both Turing and Murray were charged with “gross indecency”.

Murray was given a conditional discharge; however, Turing was forced to choose between prison or hormonal treatment to reduce his libido.  He chose the hormonal treatment, which left him impotent and deformed his body, in what is commonly referred to as “chemical castration”.

In addition to this humiliation, he was banned from entering the US, had his security clearance removed, and was forbidden to continue his work for the British signals intelligence agency (GCHQ).

Suicide

Turing’s housekeeper found him dead on 8 June 1954, after he committed suicide by cyanide poisoning.  A half-eaten apple was found beside his bed where he died, leading many to speculate that this was how he ingested the final dose.

Official pardon

In 2012, an online petition for the Government pardon of Alan Turing’s conviction gained over 37,000 signatures.  John Leech, MP for Withington, campaigned for years to pass the bill through Parliament and eventually the Queen pronounced Turing’s pardon in 2014.

Legacy

Sackville_Park_Turing_plaque

Following criticism that it was unjust to pardon just Turing out of the thousands of others who were punished under the same laws for their sexualities, a bill was passed on 31 January 2017 that pardoned all people similarly convicted.  This part of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 is known informally as the ‘Alan Turing Law’.

Tributes to Alan Turing can be found across the world.  A statue of Turing holding an apple is situated in Sackville Park in between the University of Manchester’s Sackville Street Building and Canal Street.   This commemorates Turing as ‘Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice’, at it reads on the plaque.  In 2007, the University of Manchester’s Alan Turing Building was completed as a new home for the School of Mathematics and parts of the School of Physics and Astronomy, where world-leading research continues seven decades after Turing started his work there.

turing building

To mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, 2012 was designated as the Alan Turing Year with celebrations and tributes across the world.  Manchester City Council worked with the LGBT Foundation to launch the Alan Turing Memorial Award, acknowledges contributors in the fight against homophobia in Manchester.

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