You may have heard of Alan Madison Turing from the movie “Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Born in 1912, Turing was a talented British mathematician who studied at Cambridge University. Among the many fields in which he established a solid reputation, people most note him for his impactful work in mathematics and cryptanalysis. In particular, he was the first one to genuinely examine the question “Can machines think?”
At the time, the power of today’s computers would have been unimaginable. Even the relatively trivial calculators that people often use today did not exist, meaning that the calculation process was gruesomely slow. In fact, there was a vocation for people doing such calculations and mathematical work that computers do today, although to a much-limited extent. Such difficulties led to Mr. Turing’s devotion to the creation of a revolutionary device that would facilitate this very process.
In 1936, Turing with Church made the shocking proof supporting their claim that the confusing Entscheidungsproblem problem had no solution to it. However, more shocking than his proof was the Turing machine that he created in the process of attempting the problem. It marked his future involvement with computers, with the University of Manchester later using it as a foundation for creating the first functioning electronic stored-program digital computer.
After numerous other successes, Turing was faced with a problem that would mark the zenith of his career: the Enigma. As evident from the name itself, the Enigma was a complex German cipher machine utilized for encryptions; the only problem was that it was indecipherable even to a team of brilliant minds. Marian Rejewski’s team had created the Bomba which was impressively effective until Germany altered its operating procedures. If the Enigma was cracked, the future of World War II would undoubtedly lean in favor of Britain. Consequently, many were desperate to crack it.
When the possibility of cracking the Enigma seemed bleak, Turing and his team designed a better machine called the Bombe. Through the machine’s successful ability to crack the Enigma, it played an invaluable role in the war, essentially sealing Germany’s defeat. In fact, in “Imitation Game,” Cumberbatch, as Turing, sarcastically inquired, “Was I God? No. Because God didn’t win the war.” Indeed, it would not be an understatement to say that Turning’s brilliancy shaped the outcome of World War II.
After cracking the Enigma and experiencing a dramatic increase in fame, Turing would humbly continue exploring his passion for such technological devices. For instance, he later created the Automatic Computing Engine, the first model of an electronically stored program. Moreover, such creations and discoveries would have long-lasting consequences on modern artificial intelligence. For this reason, Turing is often dubbed the founder of AI, as well as the first to establish a correlation between a digital computing machine and the human brain.
Behind this mathematical genius’s career as an academic, however, was a neglected individual who suffered in his last moments due to his “crime” of being homosexual.
What people often don’t realize about Turing is that his life was not as full of glory and beauty as some might expect. Disillusioned by his legacy today, we often ignore the fact that Turing met a sad death because of his sexual orientation. In March 1952, Turing was charged with the crime of homosexuality and compelled to go through a year of homornal therapy. This not only meant that Turing would never get access to his past opportunities, as a criminal record prevented him from working in places such as the Government Communications Headquarters, but also suffer from depression. Eventually, he met a painful death due to cyanide poisoning.
Gratefully, in the 21st century, several apologies have been made in regards to the violation of Turing’s human rights. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology about Turing’s forced hormonal treatment; Queen Elizabeth II even granted him a royal pardon. In 2019, Turing has been promised what many would call eternal fame and recognition: his face will be printed as Britain’s highest value currency. Even Turing would have been proud to have been chosen from the 227,299 candidates for the honor, including other groundbreaking scientists and mathematicians like Steven Hawking.
The reason why Alan Madison Turing is such a respectable figure is not merely his phenomenal achievements. Regardless of how impressive they were, what makes Turing stand out is his persevering nature that was willing to forgive the mischiefs imposed upon him. He would be the one to willingly sacrifice his health and his invaluable time for the wellbeing of his country. His kind reminder to humanity, “we can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done,” should serve as a ringing bell that one of history’s most intelligent individuals – who was deprived of his fundamental rights by the government he worked for – adamantly did what needed to be done.