The Talented Mister Turing

June 23rd marks the centenary of Alan Turing’s Birth. In the 100 years since his birth, science and technology have advanced dramatically. Turing only lived into his 40s, but even so his contributions to science and technology were profound, provocative, and lifesaving.

Turing’s work in computability put him on the radar at Bletchley Park, where several of Britains brightest worked to crack the code of the German Enigma Machine. The team could be thought of as an early band of hackers, trying to extract information from German military command.


One of the Enigma Machines Turing's team worked to beat was stolen. Fortunately, it was returned a few months later. (ENIGMA CODING MACHINE THEFT. ITV Lunchtime News. 04-03-2000)

Turing’s work centered around the development of the bombe, an early electromechanical device that eventually led to modern computers. The bombe could repeatedly test potential Enigma codes and pass along promising candidates to cryptanalysts at Bletchley. In succeeding, the team’s efforts are credited with bringing about Allied victory years before it might otherwise have.

Bombe Replica

The bombe, and other British inventions were showcased in this exhibition (BRITISH GENIUS EXHIBITION. News At Ten ( ITV Late Evening News). 26-05-1977)

Computability was conceptualized through the processes that a Turing machine would go through to complete tasks. Turing believed that most tasks could be broken down into something machine readable, an algorithm. This is a set of instructions for calculating a result or solving a problem. When done repeteadly and precisely, potential applications are limitless.

3D representation of the surface of the human brain

An algorithm generated this three dimensional brain scan (Surface detail of a human brain. Wellcome Images)

As algorithms and the machines that analyzed them became more powerful they eventually developed into what we now think of as supercomputers, laptops, smartphones, and so on. As the creator of the Turing machine concept and one of the early thinkers in computability, Turing is considered the grandfather of computer science and the computer itself.

Woman standing amongst a supercomputer array

Now supercomputers can be used to run stock markets, model the climate, and calculate trajectories for objects launched from Earth to destinations hundreds of thousands of miles away (Fastest Supercomputer in the World. Getty (still images). 28-06-2000)

The impact of Turing’s work in computing enabled the rise of the internet and societal development toward an information or knowledge economy.

Man talking about an internet exhibition

An early look at the internet (INTERNET EXHIBITION. ITV Lunchtime News. 25-04-1995)

Modern computer and internet integration aren’t all positive of course. The world is now more susceptible to viruses than ever. A virus from the turn of the millennium, Love Bug, made headlines simply because it was widespread. A little over a decade later, viruses often aren’t newsworthy unless they cause significant problems at noteworthy sites.

Man giving a conference on the Love Bug Virus

The Love Bug virus caused quite a stir (COMPUTERS: LOVE BUG VIRUS. Channel 4 Early Evening News. 05-05-2000)

The Turing Test raises an array of questions about knowledge, what it means to be human, and how artificial intelligence will develop. The test attempts to determine whether a person might be able to tell if they are interacting with a human or a machine during computer-mediated socialization. Those of you who’ve seen Blade Runner may recall the Voight-Kampff test, a modified Turing Test that revealed whether or not a humanoid was human or a Replicant machine.

Sony president at a podium

Sony already has robots commercially available in Japan for various purposes. Some of them help to comfort and socialize isolated individuals. They may not pass the Turing Test yet, but they are on their way (Japan's electronics giant Sony president Ryoji Chubachi. Getty (still images). 03-06-2008)

The University of Leeds is the epicenter for a whole year of events that celebrate the man’s life, including the TURING 100 Conference on the days surrounding the anniversary. There, major figures in the world of science and technology will gather to give lectures and honor a short life’s work. It’s been 100 years since Alan Turing’s birth, and in that time we’ve come from no computers to smartphones in half of British pockets. Who knows what innovations will have come by the next time we celebrate this anniversary. Any ideas?

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