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Something About Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Some time ago when I watched ‘Imitation Game’ the film based on the life of computer legend Alan Turing I was emotionally overwhelmed. But first, let’s begin with the basics. Who was Alan Turing? What did he do? Turing was a mathematician and a cryptanalyst. And he did as the movie says something that ‘No one ever imagined’. Turing was the lead the team at Bletchley park to crack Enigma, the cipher* used by Axis forces and which was considered impossible to crack. He did so by the means of a machine with several rotating barrels. When everyone was trying to decrypt it manually, he realized that only a machine will be able to beat a machine and he created ‘Bombe’, the machine that changed the course of Second World War. It is no exaggeration to say that cracking enigma shortened the war by at least two years and saved lives of millions. Turing was one of the very first human beings who were able to see the importance of an intelligent machine. Turing was surely ahead of time, he created the Turing Machine, which is the predecessor of the modern computer. At the time when computer science was still incipient, he imagined machines as intelligent as humans. For that, he proposed a test now called the Turing test from which the movie ‘Imitation game’ derives its name. In the Turing test a person sitting in a room converse by the means of typing, to either another person or a machine sitting in another room. He does not know whether he is conversing with a person or a machine and he has to determine it at the end of the test. If he is able to identify the machine, the test fails and so does the AI system. On the other hand, if the judge is unable to distinguish the machine from the human, the test is a success. This remains the ultimate test for AI systems even today, where a computer has to imitate the human. However, sadly he was never celebrated for what he did during his lifetime, which unfortunately was short because of the cruelty and stupidity of the society. His work at Bletchley Park which saved millions of life was a top secret and was classified. For all his services he was met with total ungratefulness from the part of society. He was charged with indecency as he was a homosexual and being one was a crime at that time. After the prosecution, he was offered imprisonment or chemical castration to ‘cure’ him. He chose not to go to the prison, two years later he was found dead in his apartment, most probably by poisoning himself. This is what the world gave him in return. It is an irony that, slaying millions of life on the name of war is not ‘indecency’ but a very personal, totally harmless predilection is ‘indecency’. In the year 2014, the queen issued a royal pardon to Alan Turing, conceding that what the law did with him was wrong. Today, the most prestigious prize in computer science is called Turing prize, also considered as Noble prize of computing world. But none of this gives justice to Alan Turing and the cruel game society played with him.

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