“I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”― Alan Turing, Computing machinery and intelligence
More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life?
Genius has it’s quirks
Born in 1912, Turing was wowing teachers ever since grade school. His skills were so incredible that he was able to solve complex equations and problems despite never being taught them. Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.
Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.
He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.
Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It’s the only way I can get some release.”
Alan Turing’s discoveries were some of the biggest technological advancements of the time, but often the current technology couldn’t keep up with his brain. In 1948, he wrote the first chess programs for computers, but no computer had the power to run them, so he ran the algorithms by hand.
A controversial end
Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Alan Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.
Being gay at the time was looked down upon by government and homosexual acts were illegal in the UK. After admitting to a sexual relationship with Arnold Murray, he was charged with gross indecency by the Crown. He was given a choice between 2 years imprisonment or chemical castration — he chose the latter to continue his work. By order of the court, he had to take hormones for a year intended to “cure” his homosexuality, rendering him impotent and contracting gynecomastia, or enlarged breasts in men.
In 2009, then Prime Minister Gorden Brown offered the first national apology to Turing. It set up the centennial of Turing’s birth in 2017, when universities from the United States to Peru to New Zealand held events honoring Turing. The first major retrospective on Turing’s life was extended through another month because of high demand at London’s Science Museum. A British postage stamp bearing his likeness went on sale that same year, as did an Alan Turing edition of Monopoly — a board game he was said to be obsessed with as a child. And Google has unveiled a “doodle” in his honor. The timing fits nicely on the heals of the emerging “singularity” as the first quantum computer came online earlier this year and the world becomes aware of Artificial Intelligence.
Turing the father of cryptology and modern computer science
Alan Turing is the father of modern computer science and cryptology, and his rolls in WWII have immortalized him into history. At the time, his personal life drew scrutiny, which may have led to his suicide. Despite this, he was a genius, and much of our modern technology is rooted in principles which he founded. Turing would have been 107-years-old today.
In 1936, Turing devised the first example of the modern computer, the Turing Machine, a machine that could compute anything that could be computed. This was an innovative idea at the time, and it eventually led to the creation of modern computers.
In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.
Besides his work in Computer Science, he also did extensive research in artificial intelligence and cryptology. He was the first person to set standards of intelligence to differentiate humans from machines. This foundation is now seen in CAPTCHA, used to determine if a user is human.
Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.
Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.
His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.
The Imitation Game (2014)
The screenplay of the 2014 American historical drama of Turing breaking the Enigma code Imitation Game topped the annual Black List for best unproduced Hollywood scripts in 2011. The Weinstein Company acquired the film for $7 million in February 2014, the highest amount ever paid for U.S. distribution rights at the European Film Market. It was released theatrically in the United States on 28 November 2014.
The Imitation Game grossed over $233 million worldwide on a $14 million production budget, making it the highest-grossing independent film of 2014. It received eight nominations at the 87th Academy Awards, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay, five nominations in the 72nd Golden Globe Awards, and three nominations at the 21st Screen Actors Guild Awards. It also received nine BAFTA nominations and won the People’s Choice Award at the 39th Toronto International Film Festival.
The film was criticised by some for its inaccurate portrayal of historical events and for downplaying Turing’s homosexuality. However, the LGBT civil rights advocacy organisation the Human Rights Campaign honoured it for bringing Turing’s legacy to a wider audience.
Alan Turing died on June 8, 1954 from an apparent suicide after eating an apple believed to have been laced with cyanide. The apple was never tested for cyanide, leading to many, even Alan’s mother, insisting that the poisoning was accidental. Suicide was indicated as likely given the persecution Turing suffered from being openly gay, but no one around him expected him to commit suicide. To this day, not everyone is convinced that his death was by suicide.
In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)
That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.
The pathologists note added: ‘Death appears to be due to violence.’ Mayor Author Roger Bristow, who has spent almost 30 years researching Turing and his work at Bletchley Park, said he was carrying out secret work before his death. ‘His body was found on the Tuesday morning and he was buried by Wednesday afternoon. How could proper tests have been conducted in that time?’
Mr Bristow adds that Turing had been working on the top secret operation Verona, deciphering wartime radio signals to identify Russian agents in the United States.
He describes how some of the agents managed to get themselves into highly prominent positions, with one even becoming a personal assistant to President Roosevelt. Was Turing a party to the birth of the “deep state?” Did he create the coveted inner sanctum of the “Military Industrial Complex” President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned U.S. citizens about?
In any event, Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies’ World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.