Tuesday 27 August 2013

Scraps from a parallel universe: Alan Turing Obituary

Manchester Grauniad, 27 August 2013

Lord Turing of Bletchley died yesterday, 26 August 2013, Aged 101. 

It is appropriate that the great computer pioneer, Alan Turing, died at an age which looks like it is written in binary.  But it is also fortunate for his family, friends, and the world, that he lived for 96 years longer than that, since 101 in binary is 5.

Lord Turing achieved scientific fame based on his 1936 paper which introduced the concept of a "Turing Machine", leading to the theoretical basis of computer science.  During the war and afterwards he worked on the hardware aspects of computers, so can also be seen as a founder of practical computer science.  Not content with this, he founded Artificial Intelligence with his seminal paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence."  It was for these contributions that he became, in 1965, the first winner of the Von Neumann award, the highest recognition for a Computer Scientist.

Turing's originality did not finish having founded Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence. He continued with productive and original work, both theoretical and practical, throughout the late 1950s, the 1960s and through most of the 1970s.  Indeed as Emeritus Professor in the 1980s he was a familiar sight cycling to his office to share a new result with his colleagues.  His most important contributions from this phase of his career can be summarised thus:


[Unfortunately here a page is missing from the scrap that traversed the parallel universe.]


It was only in his later career that it became widely known that his work on wartime cryptography had been of major importance in helping to win the war for the Allies, and it was this which propelled him from simply being recognised by scientists as first among equals, to being a national hero.

Lord Turing married relatively late in life, having met his future husband in June 1954 at the age of 41.  Their marriage in 1955 was one of the first same-sex marriages in the UK, reflecting the country's recognition of the contribution to the war effort that gay people made.  His husband predeceased him in 1996.

When asked in old age about the secret of his long life, Lord Turing often joked that it was eating an apple every night in bed that kept him alive.    

The Grauniad contacted some of Turing's friends and colleagues for reactions to his passing.

Steve Jobs, Apple: "Whenever I thought of 'there's an app for that' I thought of Turing and his incredible foresight - before computers were invented - that a single machine could act as any other machine."

Sir Douglas Adams, Author: "Everyone knew Turing through his work, but knowing Turing as a friend was something special.  In fact, it was Alan who suggested that 46 would be the funniest number to be the answer to life, the universe, and everything."

John McCarthy, Artificial Intelligence pioneer: "Alan always saw the big picture as well as
the details, and indeed suggested the names 'first' and 'rest' for key operations in my programming language, instead of some arbitrary names I had in mind based on the machine I was working on at the time."