Until recently only computer scientists had heard of Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954). Now he is better known thanks to a blockbuster movie… but even so, few people realize the momentous impact he had made – beyond cracking the Nazi Enigma code, which is what the movie was about.Turing was a mathematician, yet his contributions to humanity span areas as diverse as computer science and the philosophy of the mind. His first notable work was a paper titled “On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem”. You wouldn’t expect it, but this arcane article hides the entire foundation of computer science as we know. To address that Entscheidungsproblem (Google it if you must), he created the theoretical construct we now call a Turing Machine… which is an abstraction of every computer we have today, a simple machine that could compute anything that is computable, and could be modified by reading a program code. This is what the computer you’re looking at does, but the article came out in 1936, before there were any computers at all… and Turing, a 24-year-old student, went right ahead and laid out their conceptual framework with full scientific rigor.
Turing was a rare blend of theoretician and technologist; he wanted to implement his theoretical machine in practical electronic circuitry. He had to take a break and save the world in WW2, but after the war he designed actual computers that could be built. His design was used in the Pilot ACE, one of the first computers built in the UK and a very successful one.
And then he turned his mind to what we call AI. He unleashed this concept on the world in 1950, in another paper, this one called “Computing machinery and intelligence”. It begins with “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’”. This must have seemed strange at a time when there must have been less than a dozen computers on the planet, all of them lumbering behemoths barely capable of doing basic calculations. But Turing boldly stated that by the end of the century machines will in fact think (wrong), and analyzed in depth what that means and how we’d go about getting there (still very relevant). He gave us the Turing Test for identifying a thinking machine, which our present-day programmers are eagerly trying to pass (though still unsuccessfully). He also described the concept of Machine Learning.
But what I find truly fascinating is WHY Alan Turing was interested in thinking machines. He states it explicitly in a letter from 1950: “In working on the ACE I am more interested in the possibility of producing models of the action of the brain than in the practical applications to computing”. We can already see this line of thinking in his 1936 paper: Turing had defined the Turing Machine by considering how a person does sums – in fact, he was deconstructing the brain to invent the computer. And this is why I say that Turing had made a philosophical breakthrough on a level with Darwin’s: where Darwin put before us the ape and forced us to see a reflection of our physical body, Turing put before us the computer and forced us to see in it an analog of our mind. The computer and the mind, he realized, are deeply related. This realization has far-reaching implications for Science, Religion, and the Philosophy of Mind. It is also what places Computer Science at the intellectual frontier of human knowledge, alongside Quantum Mechanics, Cosmology and Evolutionary Biology.
All of which leads to the deepest of questions: are we merely biological robots controlled by neural computers? And if we aren’t – if we also have a soul – will advanced artificial intelligence systems also have one? And what are the ethical implications of all that?
No one would be a better choice than Alan Turing to consider these questions further – had he lived on. But two years after “Computing machinery and intelligence” he was arrested for “gross indecency”, as homosexuality was then called, convicted, and after two years of forced “treatment” he took his own life. Not all the apologies and royal pardons issued recently can bring back the man who invented the computer in order to understand the mind; and that is a truly unpardonable loss. But Turing’s legacy continues to enable some of the most important changes in our world: he gave us the basis for today’s amazing computers, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, which together are revolutionizing the way we all live. What a man!…