“Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant” – Alan Turing, the Father of Modern Computing
|The Turing mural in the lobby of our Toronto office|
When you visit the newly renovated SmartSimple offices in Toronto, Canada, you’ll notice a series of murals featuring historical moments in computing. One in particular depicts the man considered by many to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Mathison Turing.
Born June 23, 1912 in London, England, Turing’s genius was apparent early on in his childhood, and by the time he was 13-years-old, he discovered a particular interest in both math and science.
Turing attended King’s College at the University of Cambridge. In 1934, he delivered a paper, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (a German term meaning literally “decision problem”), citing the notion of a machine capable of computing just about anything. This became the central concept for modern day computers.
After Cambridge, Turing studied mathematics and cryptology at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1938, he returned to Cambridge to work for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). There, he devised a number of methods for cracking German cyphers, decrypting messages that ultimately allowed the Allies to defeat the Nazis in several key battles during World War II.
Once the war ended, Turing went back to London and began working for the National Physical Laboratory, where he created the design for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). This lead to a ground breaking concept for stored-program computers – computers which store program instructions in electronic memory. He then went to the University of Manchester where he developed the “Turing Test,” his first foray into artificial intelligence, proposing a design standard for the technology industry.
Sadly, Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for being an admitted homosexual, illegal at the time in the U.K. He died on June 7, 1954, and, while never completely proven, it is believed he committed suicide. On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was treated."
In 1999, Time Magazine recognized Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. Over the years, he’s also been immortalized on the screen in several adaptations of his life and work, including the 1996 television movie Breaking the Code, the 2011 film The Turing Enigma, and the soon to be released feature, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
We’re in the process of installing a new mural portraying Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper, USN, Ph.D., a computer scientist best known for coining the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches. We’ll share her remarkable story in a future blog – stay tuned!