turing_1Alan Turing has just been robbed. Sitting outside his U.K. apartment in 1952, Turing is questioned by the police. During their conversation he acknowledges a sexual relationship with a 19-year-old Arnold Murray. Homosexual acts are considered criminally indecent in England at the time. After inventing the computer, and shortening the length of WWII dramatically, Turing is famously convicted for being a homosexual and sentenced to estrogen implants which culminated in his 1954 suicide.

It is difficult to imagine a life before computers; however, many people alive today could tell you what it was like. In the mid-20th century humankind was left with only a man and his secret vision for the future.

Picture a simple machine that consists of only three essential components: an infinitely long strip of tape, a header that prints symbols (mostly zeroes and ones), and a set of instructions. Obviously it is a machine made only for the imagination; some of the requirements to build one exceed what humans are able to produce. Yet, from this machine all mathematical proof – ranging from basic arithmetic to advanced forms of calculus – is made possible.

Perhaps you are having trouble visualizing what such a machine might look like. Well, if you are glancing at this page, then there is a good chance you are looking right at one!

The aforementioned Turing machine, sometimes called the “a-machine,” is the ideal abstraction of a modern day computer. Any computer that users may interact with today is the simulacrum of this perfect machine. The Turing machine exists in the mind of every programmer, technologist, and enthusiast. Although the basic concept may not seem revolutionary in the context of 2013 technology, Alan Turing’s 1936 invention captured the interest of mathematicians around the world during WWII.

Throughout Alan Turing’s lifetime (June 1912 – June 1954), the term computer usually referred to a woman who translated speech into written text. A first-class honors mathematics graduate of Cambridge King’s College, Turing proved the central limit theorem at the young age of 22. In his earlier years at Sherborn School in Dorset, Britain he exchanged love letters with his fellow classmate Christopher Morcom who later died tragically of tuberculosis in February 1930. During his time spent at Cambridge his colleagues recall him daydreaming on the sunny campus green. He is commonly described as handsome young man with a quirky personality. Turing reportedly rides a bicycle with an altered chain that malfunctions on approximately each 100th cycle – to avert and track thieves.

England in the early 1940’s is a country at war. German naval fleets have masked their communications using what is known as the Enigma machine. A typewriter, in essence, but with each message sent a series of discs carrying an electrical current would shift, causing one letter to be swapped with another. Because of this substitution process, the code produced by the Enigma machine was considered truly indecipherable.

With Nazi submarines lurking on England’s shores, Winston Churchill decides to attack the problem itself against the advice of his councilors who insist that the code is unbreakable. In the strictest of secrecy, he summons the brightest minds of mid-20th century England to crack mysteriously encoded messages that British intelligence agents have intercepted. The information hidden within could turn the tide of war by revealing vital positions of German naval forces. Chess players, mathematicians, researchers, and Sunday crossword masters are all summoned by Churchill to participate in a top secret MI6 project known simply as UItra.

Turing is among those who are chosen to participate. Working with a team of scientists in the years that come to pass, a piece of Turing’s perfect dream machine manifests itself as the bombe in 1939.

“It was a substantial development from a device that had been designed in 1938 by Polish Cipher Bureau cryptologist Marian Rejewski, and known as the “cryptologic bomb” (Polish: bomba kryptologiczna) […] The bombe was designed to discover some of the daily settings of the Enigma machines on the various German military networks.”

Noticing that each message began with similar greetings such as “Heil Hitler” and calculating how the Enigma machine moved each day, Turing was able to break the code. This accomplishment reduced the duration of WWII substantially and marked the birth of computing machines. More specifically, the success of the bombe and Turing’s application of it started a trend in the realm of engineering: this idea that machines can serve multiple purposes instead of being committed to just one task. The expansion of this concept demonstrates why computers emulate many other machines in use today and why Turing remains famous.

In the thirteen years leading up to 1952, and after his success with Ultra, Turing fades back into the woodwork of British society. He remains unlucky in finding love and his father passed away just a few years prior. It is here, in the summer of ’52, that Turing speaks to some police officers outside of his home as a victim of burglary.

Despite his efforts during the war, Turing is presented two options after remorselessly pleading “guilty” to criminal indecency; imprisonment or subject himself to hormone therapy. Fearful of life behind bars, the treatment he received eventually resulted in the growth of feminine breasts and chemical castration.

With surging media attention surrounding his notably public trial and eventual conviction, Turing is famous for all the wrong reasons. His patriotic work during the war occurred entirely in secret and he is concerned that people will dismiss his ideas because of his sexuality. He reportedly writes to a friend:

“I’m rather afraid that the following syllogism will be used by some in the future: Turing believes that machines think, Turing lies with men, therefore machines do not think.”

Grave depression and personal uncertainty led to Turing’s suicide in June 1954. Inspired by Disney’s Snow White (1937), Turing ingests an apple containing cyanide. He was 42 years old.

Perhaps what Turing didn’t know is just how much his dream of a perfect machine would affect the future of mankind. Half a century later, after the invention of the IBM personal computer, the Internet, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language, and the World Wide Web (to name a few), our world is engulfed in the flames of an era known as the Information Age, or Digital Sun.  Alan Turing is a household name in the modern scientific and mathematics community despite living his life in the shadow of society. His continued fame has caused modern day scientists to speak out against the poor treatment he received during his lifetime.

“It’s hard to discuss Turing’s accomplishments without borrowing from concepts that we’ve already internalized. The second you use the term program you’re already cheating! Many of the terms we’ve come to accept and use today didn’t exist back then – not even close.”

Ethan Rosh (32) is an information technologist and consultant here in New York City. Rosh volunteered to discuss his work and how Turing’s 70-year-old dream influenced the future.

“In today’s state of affairs a lot of his [Turing’s] bigger ideas are still in development. We have yet to invent a machine that verifiably thinks. The Turing test is still the main method used to determine the quality of artificial intelligences.”

Rosh is referring to a test developed by Turing which involves people reading messages generated by both machines and humans. The test subjects are then asked to determine which messages are computer-generated and which are human. Many modern computer programs are able to score with high accuracy on this test – a statement that could not be made about their predecessors.

“There is still plenty of research to be done in this area. Technology has a long way to go, but it seems like every day the line between man and machine keeps getting blurrier.”

With the help of several scientific successors, Turing’s imaginary machine eventually blossomed into modern computers producing beautiful paintings and harmonious music using only zeroes and ones. If the illusion is revealed, does the magic still remain? Turing even hypothesized that one day computers would be able to think and be functioning members of society – an idea that outraged several members of his academic community. His fame endures not only for the achievements he earned during his lifetime, but the questions that he posed for future generations and the art of computing.