This year is the centennial celebration of the birth of Alan Turing, giant in the fields of computing, artificial intelligence and cryptoanalysis.
Turing was a man very much ahead of his time, both intellectually and socially. A brilliant logical mind, Turing played a pioneering role in the development of the field of computer science through his description of a hypothetical machine called the “Turing machine”, which has become the blueprint of the modern computer.
He also played a key role in the success of the Allied Forces in World War II, through his contribution to cracking the German Enigma code. He designed and helped build a code breaking machine known as the “Bombe”, which represented a huge leap forward in the field of cryptoanalysis.
After the war, Turing made further contributions to the field of computer science and created the ‘Turing Test’, which tests the ‘thinking ability’ of a computer, thus laying the foundation for the field of artificial intelligence.
Sadly, as mentioned, Turing was also out of time at a social level – being gay in an era when homosexuality was still a criminal offense. An incident with his boyfriend led to Turing being arrested for ‘gross indecency’. To avoid prison, he agreed to “chemical castration” through estrogen therapy. As a result of his arrest, Turing’s military clearance was also revoked and he was unable to do further work for the British government, severely stunting his further academic contributions.
Two years after his conviction, Turing committed suidice by eating an apple poisoned with cyanide, a sad reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which apparently was one of his favourite films.
Turing received a posthumous apology from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, where his contribution, and the social injustice he was subjected to, was finally publicly acknowledged.
One can but wonder how much more the brilliant Turing may have contributed, had he been afforded more time.