The man and his machine

A page from Alan Turing’s notebook is displayed in front of his portrait.   | Photo Credit: AP

During World War II, German submarines prowled the Atlantic Ocean attacking Allied ships. These underwater movements were hard to track, as the ‘Enigma’ code developed by the Germans appeared unbreakable. Alan Turing, a scientist working with Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park in London, led efforts to develop the ‘Bombe’, an awkward-looking huge machine that successfully deciphered the German code and enabled Allied ships to alter course without fear of detection. This also made possible the secret ‘Normandy’ landings that finally led to German defeat in 1945.

Early life

Born on June 23, 1912, Alan was always asking himself how things happened. His early interest in science surprised and displeased his mother. She, like other parents, wanted him to study the classics: subjects like Latin, English, and history. But Alan did not do well in school. When he was 15, his maths and science grades in school were so disappointing that his teachers worried about letting him take the school-leaving certificate exams.

Yet, Alan got admission to King’s College, Cambridge, where he was made a ‘fellow’ in 1935 when he was just 23. He earned a doctorate at Princeton University in 1938 before returning to work at Cambridge University. Though Alan was not much into sports, he loved running. He used to run to office, telling friends that this helped ease the stress. In 1948, when Turing was 35 years old, he apparently ran the marathon, finishing eleven minutes slower than the Olympic time that year.

A model of the Bombe, developed by Alan Turing that successfully deciphered the German code during World War II

A model of the Bombe, developed by Alan Turing that successfully deciphered the German code during World War II   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thinking machines

As a teenager, Alan had read Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. His interest in the new and then-unknown field of quantum mechanics inspired him to work on developing ‘machines that could think’. After World War II, Turing worked on developing a ‘Universal Turing machine’, where something mechanical could be programmed to perform tasks set by the human mind. He was always fascinated by the relationship between human thought and automated processes and inventions. In 1950, he wrote about the ‘Turing Test’, an experiment that tested a machine’s ability to mimic human intelligence. His work laid the foundation for the development of computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Tragic end

Alan Turing died in 1954, when he was just 41 years. He is said to have committed suicide due to issues connected with his homosexuality. He had been subjected to humiliation and ridicule but, today, is recognised as one of the most brilliant minds of all time. Scientists and activists campaigned for a pardon for him, especially after homosexuality was ‘decriminalised’ in 1967. The British government issued a formal apology in 2009. In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted him a royal pardon. His life was the subject of a 2014 film, ‘The Imitation Game’, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 6:19:15 PM |

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