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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.

Women in Tech – Simone Giertz

To inspire millions, it takes a rare combination of ability, timing, and vision. This, the human endeavor, has led to putting a human on the moon. Exploring the very limits of our universe. And, to make this:

As part of Women’s History Month, we want to celebrate both the historical innovators who made modern technology possible (We’re looking at you, Betty Holberton), and the women of today who are making a bit of modern history themselves. This week, we’re celebrating the work of none other than the Internet’s very own “Queen of Shitty Robots”, Simone Giertz.

Simone’s path to her being an international technological inspiration may not have followed the most traditional path: As a college dropout, she discovered her love of madcap engineering while interacting with local open-source hardware enthusiasts during her time at Hyper Island. Immersing herself with other creators, she embraced the “Learning by doing” mentality by jumping straight in with almost no prior robotics knowledge. Using her enthusiasm with a liberal amount of Googling, she taught herself from the ground-up how to build and program her first robots. In fact, while attempting to launch a children’s TV show in Sweden, she developed her Toothbrush Machine: a helmet that, at best, assaulted one’s face with a plastic toothbrush. While unfortunately the show was never picked up, her career as an innovator in horrible machines took off after she uploaded her creation to YouTube for all to see:

Simone combines a natural inquisitiveness, deadpan delivery, and desire to embrace the ridiculous was just what the internet needed. Rapidly what started off as her sharing the results of her tinkering with technology ended up with her headlining Reddit’s /r/all (often from posts in the aptly-named shittyrobots subreddit), being featured on shows like The Ellen Show and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and even one of the most enjoyable TED Talks in years.

Seriously, take a 12 minute pause break and watch her TED talk “Why You Should Make Useless Things” right now:

Not content to just make videos about machines that possibly only make your morning worse, she also documents her process for all of us to learn from, which are equal parts inspiring and amusing. This unique approach to curiosity and building whatever comes from it has led to joy, awkward laughter, and a newfound appreciation of tech among millions of fans across the internet.

Of course, beyond machines that assault with soup, she’s also launched a successfully backed Kickstarter to build The Everyday Calendar: A handsome device that helps everyone build good habits and get the grown up version of the Gold Star every day they achieve their personal, reasonable goal.

Simone’s path followed what we believe in most: The best way to develop new life skills is to jump in, learn with your peers, and to practically apply your learning throughout your self-driven education. And, most important of all, to never stop creating.

Recently, Simone announced that Brian, her brain tumor which she had previously sent on a vacation to Antarctica, has started to grow again. To this, we here at Holberton would like to say we’re rooting for you to successfully evict Brian for good, and that your videos, your enthusiasm for tech, and the very not-OSHA compliant robots that you bring into this world delight everyone here; student and staff alike.