A Brief and Sad History of Alan Turing

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TuringMost of us that live and work within the computer industry know about Alan Mathison Turing, even if it?s just a passing knowledge. He was one of the founding fathers of computer science. His work on the concept of computation that led to the Turing machine formed the basis of the modern computer. Also, his work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War helped to crack the German Enigma code and was essential to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the preservation of freedom in the western world.

But what he may be best known for is a test he developed to determine the intelligence of a machine. The Turing test was conceived before the microchip and described prior to the advent of anything we today would even recognize as a computer. Yet, it is still a benchmark that is hotly debated both scientifically and philosophically. In the test, a person poses questions to two participants. One of the participants is a human, while the other participant is a machine. The inquisitor cannot see the two participants but can only judge based on their written responses. A machine is said to pass the test if it can deceive the judge into believing it is a human.

Each year since 1991 the Leobner Competition is held between computer programs participating in the Turing test. Three medals are at stake. The gold medal goes to a machine that can fool the judges visually as well as through sound, the silver to any program that can pass a text only version of the test. The bronze is given as an honorable mention to a program that does not pass the test but displays the most human-like artificial conversation. It is said that once a machine can consistently pass the test we will have achieved artificial intelligence. So far, only the bronze medal as ever been awarded.

Tragically, Alan Turing was a victim of the prejudice and bigotry of his time. Turing was a homosexual and prior to the 1960s this was a crime in Great Britain and treated as a mental illness. In 1952 the very government he helped save during World War 2 convicted him of gross indecency. He was given a choice between imprisonment or chemical castration. Turing accepted castration, which was preformed by giving him estrogen injections to suppress his libido. The treatment caused multiple side effects both mental and physical, including Turing developing breasts. Two years later Alan Turning was found dead. He had committed suicide by eating an apple he had dipped in cyanide.

Earlier this year a computer scientist named John Graham-Cumming started an online petition asking for an official apology from the British government for their treatment of Turing. On September 10th, 2009 the petition, which received over 31,000 signatures, was successful and Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of the British government. You can read the full contents of the apology here. John Graham-Cumming has also written to Queen Elizabeth and asked that Turing be award a posthumous knighthood. Given his contribution to the world of computing and the selfless work done breaking German ciphers during the darkest days of World War 2 this seems another only appropriate step to righting a terrible wrong.

Turing was a giant in the field of computer science and in 1999 Time Magazine named him on of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. His story is one that should always be remembered as an example of what can happen when a society allows itself to be blinded by it?s own moral and political rightness. Albert Einstein once said ?Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.? Let us all honor Alan Turing by striving every day to not be mediocre, and by recognizing greatness and opening our minds to it whenever it is among us.