Time to honour Turing


Every day an estimated two billion personal computers are used to solve problems, do business, communicate across the miles and play games.

Most PC users probably think they have Apple’s Steve Jobs or Microsoft’s Bill Gates to thank for the world’s most popular machine, next to the wheel. But they are all wrong. Jobs and Gates built empires on the foundations of someone else’s work.

Those who have studied the life of Cambridge mathematics alumnus Alan Turing, or who have seen the 2014 biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch about him called The Imitation Game, know much better. It was Turing who we have to thank for ushering in the computer age.

It was Turing who proposed the Universal Turing Machine, a stored program computer, in his Princeton University Ph.D. paper On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem). Turing’s paper simultaneously became the blueprint for the personal computer and a manifesto for computer science at the same time.

Turing is best known for designing and building a machine that could break the German navy’s enigma code during World War II. Turing’s code breaking machine shortened the war by two years and saved the lives of an estimated 20 million people who would otherwise have died as a result of the destructive conflict continuing for another two years.

By the 1950s the Universal Turing Machine was in common use in the business world, although it would not be recognisable to the digital natives of today who seem to be born with a smartphone or an iPod in their hands. But it did the job for which it was built exceedingly well.

The British mathematician also postulated artificial intelligence in a 1950 paper. Because of this he gave his name to a test used to measure the artificial intelligence of a computer. If a person could not distinguish the answers to set questions given by a computer from that of a human the computer is said to have passed the Turing Test. No computer is known to have passed the Turing Test to date, but it is probably close.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), in New York, recognised Turing half a century ago with the ACM A. M. Turing Award and has now presented the award 50 times. Technology giants hold Turing in such high regard that they are willing to give large sums of money away with the award made in his name. Since 2014 Google has given $1 million to the winner of the A.M. Turing Award.

So, instead of being technologist’s poster boy it is time Turing was recognised by the world, at large, for his contribution to the modern world.


About Author

David Hallett

David Hallett is a director of Hamilton software specialist Company-X, design house E9 and chief nerd at Waikato Need A Nerd.