Alan Turing’s Enigma Revealed

January 30, 2013

You may have heard many incredible things about Alan Turing, the British mathematician who lived only to the age of 41 (from 1912 to 1954). He is best known, perhaps, for his work in computer science, and particularly the Turing machine, which is considered, for all intents and purposes, one of the earliest modern computational machines thanks to its ability to mimic any computer algorithm (although it was never intended for practical use, serving as more of a theoretical computing test). He is also well known for developing the Turing test, meant to help humans gage the relative intellect of artificial intelligence through a series of questions meant to determine whether the recipient is a human or a computer based on the way it “thinks”. In short, he was a man who thought like a computer and taught computers to think like men. But there’s a lot more to this incredible historical figure than his technical brain, and Andrew Hodges seeks to reveal the man behind the myth in his audio book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”.

Although there are those who claim Turing is the inventor of the earliest computer as we know it, this is not exactly true. In fact, many claims about this incredible man have been exaggerated more than a little (he steered the Allied forces towards victory against the Nazis?!). But Hodges takes a pretty fair and balanced look at the man and sifts through the stories to find the heart of Alan Turing. Working with the science available to him at the time, Turing certainly accomplished a lot, including the conceptualization of a universal machine that could do the tasks of any other machine on the planet. And as for single-handedly winning WWII, the exaggeration may have some small kernel of fact at its core since Turing was part of a cryptanalysis team working to decode German ciphers, and he helped to create a machine that could crack the infamous “enigma” code.

Of course, Turing also had a personal life, and in his own time he was perhaps even more widely known for his personal proclivities than for his intellectual pursuits. As it turned out, he was homosexual, and such acts were deemed illegal in England during his lifetime. Following a relationship with a younger man, Turing was slapped with criminal charges, convicted, and forced to undergo hormonal treatments to “cure” him. In addition, he was stripped of his security clearance, which made it impossible for him to continue his work in cryptography for the government. Within two years, this incredible genius would be found dead in his apartment after committing suicide by dosing himself with cyanide.

In so many ways, Turing was ahead of his time, a visionary who not only thought like a machine but also saw through social stigmas and dared to live his life the way he pleased. Unfortunately, that life would be cut tragically short, but not before he made his mark on the world of computer science. In truth, some of his theoretical ideas would not come to fruition until many years later when they were rediscovered; that’s how far ahead of his time he was. Consumers who use computers today and students who use upper training to learn computer systems are equally in debt to the late, great Alan Turing. And although we are left to wonder what he might have done if given more time, his contributions to computer science still have an impact today.

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