During WWII, Alan Turing’s logic broke apart the seemingly impenetrable random code messages of the Nazi ‘Enigma’ device, and thus delivered into the hands of Allied forces intelligence in numerous battles. Much of our knowledge of ‘machine intelligence’ can also be attributed to Turing’s pioneering theories and development of Pilot Ace, the world’s first multi-task computer.
In 1950, Alan Turing posed the question, ‘Can Machines Think?’ He proposed the key to achieving a thinking machine was not to replicate the adult mind, but that of the child-learning mind. A process somewhat akin to evolution could be imitated, gradually mutating a device through ‘education’, that is, overlaying new programming by introducing algorithms of increasing complexity. In this way, connections established from base knowledge, adjusted by mutation and selected on a basis of success would achieve the best approximation of human thought, teaching a machine to think.
He would devise an experiment referred to as the ‘Turing Test’ for theoretically evaluating machine intelligence.
These ideas are presented chapter-form in Richard Dawkins’ superbly edited collection, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.
For his weighty contributions, Alan Turing might justly have held a position of wide fame and honour today. The tragic story of Turing’s own life and the circumstances of his suicide however, reflect a new challenge for the modern age.
As Richard Dawkins writes,
After the war, when Turing’s role was no longer top secret, he should have been knighted and feted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed for a ‘crime’, [homosexual activity] committed in private, which harmed nobody.
Turing was arrested, forced in 1952 to undertake ’chemical therapy’ for his homosexuality and was removed from any official position. He died 2 years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.
Just 2 years ago, a petition in Britain lead to a full apology from the British government for its treatment of Turing, delivered September 2009 by then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The upcoming centenary of Turing’s birth has brought a new focus to honouring his legacy to modern innovation. The University of Auckland, and the UK Newton Institute will both be devoting entire lecture programs to his mathematical and computing legacy. He is already the subject of a play, an opera, and a new film focussing on his important work.
We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all the intellectual fields…We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.Alan Turing