Computer Scientist: ALAN TURING

While addressing a problem in the arcane field of mathematical logic, he imagined a machine that could mimic human reasoning. Sound familiar?

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At 13 he enrolled at the Sherbourne School in Dorset and there showed a flair for mathematics, even if his papers were criticized for being "dirty," i.e., messy. Turing recognized his homosexuality while at Sherbourne and fell in love, albeit undeclared, with another boy at the school, who suddenly died of bovine tuberculosis. This loss shattered Turing's religious faith and led him into atheism and the conviction that all phenomena must have materialistic explanations. There was no soul in the machine nor any mind behind a brain. But how, then, did thought and consciousness arise?

After twice failing to win a fellowship at the University of Cambridge's Trinity College, a lodestar at the time for mathematicians from around the world, Turing received a fellowship from King's College, Cambridge. King's, under the guidance of such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster, provided a remarkably free and tolerant environment for Turing, who thrived there even though he was not considered quite elegant enough to be initiated into King's inner circles. When he completed his degree requirements, Turing was invited to remain at King's as a tutor. And there he might happily have stayed, pottering about with problems in mathematical logic, had not his invention of the Turing machine and World War II intervened.

Turing, on the basis of his published work, was recruited to serve in the Government Code and Cypher School, located in a Victorian mansion called Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. The task of all those so assembled--mathematicians, chess champions, Egyptologists, whoever might have something to contribute about the possible permutations of formal systems--was to break the Enigma codes used by the Nazis in communications between headquarters and troops. Because of secrecy restrictions, Turing's role in this enterprise was not acknowledged until long after his death. And like the invention of the computer, the work done by the Bletchley Park crew was very much a team effort. But it is now known that Turing played a crucial role in designing a primitive, computer-like machine that could decipher at high speed Nazi codes to U-boats in the North Atlantic.

After the war, Turing returned to Cambridge, hoping to pick up the quiet academic life he had intended. But the newly created mathematics division of the British National Physical Laboratory offered him the opportunity to create an actual Turing machine, the ACE or Automatic Computing Engine, and Turing accepted. What he discovered, unfortunately, was that the emergency spirit that had short-circuited so many problems at Bletchley Park during the war had dissipated. Bureaucracy, red tape and interminable delays once again were the order of the day. Finding most of his suggestions dismissed, ignored or overruled, Turing eventually left the NPL for another stay at Cambridge and then accepted an offer from the University of Manchester where another computer was being constructed along the lines he had suggested back in 1937.

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