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Alan Turing’s Birthday

Alan Turing, Age 16

Born June 23rd, 1912, Alan Turing would have been 107 this week.

Although he’s been immortalized in media (The more biographical The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, or more fictionalized and incredibly more technical novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson), this man’s vision for the future of computing, and passion for math, basically defined modern computing. He developed the Turing Machine, the idea of a computer that, through well-applied math and logic, could basically handle any computation required of it.

Basically, he envisioned the modern computer.

True Turing Machines were only hypothetical in his lifetime (EINAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer, considered “Turing Complete” and programmed by our namesake Betty Holberton, was not powered on until the year after his death), but they represented an important first step towards the future of computing, and one that we take for granted: That a machine could be programmed to handle different tasks, then compute those tasks logically. Or, even more radically, that a machine could be programmed with a program that resides in digital memory, and that program could be changed as needed.

Bletchy Park, where Alan Turing helped create a machine to decode Enigma transmissions, directly helping the Allied war effort in WWII

He was also an early proponent of Machine Learning, and effectively, AI. The “Turing Test” is the benchmark for AI performance: The development of an AI that communicates so well that humans would not be able to tell it is a computer. He also wrote the first videogame, Turbochamp, that was simply too complex for any computer at the time, but was the first time a computer could play (with albeit a low level capability) an entire game of chess. The program would observe the human move, compute the next step options, weigh out the next logical play through a weighted decision tree, then adapt to the next human move. His vision was then to add in the capability of the program to track its wins and losses, and compute the value of its moves to ever refine itself and become a more capable opponent. Or, as we know it know, Machine Learning. 

A statue of Alan Turing.

His vision to see what computers could be capable of basically any computation basically changed modern society, just as his codebreaking in WWII literally saved thousands of lives and directly contributed to the defeat of the Nazi regime. Unfortunately, Alan Turing, who was homosexual in a time that it was a criminal offense in the United Kingdom, committed suicide at the age of 41, just a few years after pleading guilty to “gross indecency”. During this Pride week, we hope everyone can see how far we’ve progressed in LGBTQ+ rights, and just as importantly, remember the contributions of a singular man who envisioned basic groundwork of the technology all of us use each and every day.