At the intersection of tech thought leadership and heroism, no figure comes to mind more quickly than Alan Turing. For anyone who hasn’t read up on Turing’s achievements in computer science — or seen the 2014 biopic The Imitation Game — he is historically lauded for his formalization of the concepts of algorithm and computation in theoretical computer science, a field which emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century due in no small part to his early mathematical models of general-purpose computers. Aside from establishing practices in computer science that would benefit humanity beyond his death, in his lifetime, Turing’s sharp analytical mind and leadership in the field of wartime code breaking saved countless Allied lives during World War II.
Like many great artists — and I do consider Turing an artist for the intricacies of his work in a then-abstract field — he never witnessed true praise for his heroism while he lived. Turing lost more than recognition for his accomplishments, however. He lost his life in an apparent suicide following years of persecution for his sexuality. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, introduced in 1885, criminalized homosexuality and stigmatized the lifestyles and identities of homosexuals in England. It was not until decades after his death that the nation pardoned Turing, which required a great deal of effort on the part of Turing’s supporters to even direct the British government towards taking accountability for his prosecution and state-mandated chemical castration.
Turing’s focus in college was on mathematics and logic, where he, with massive foresight, laid the groundwork for his future innovation in computer science. With his 1938 recruitment by the British government to work in cryptology, it became clear that Turing’s academic talents would come to serve a more urgent purpose in the context of World War II. At this point, the German armed forces were communicating heavily amongst themselves through the Enigma Machine, an enciphering device that ensured the highest level of security in coded messages due to seemingly endless cipher combinations.
The British government saw weaknesses in the Enigma’s design, expending enormous resources in an effort to successfully exploit them for Allied gain. Capitalizing on an opportunity to put his inventiveness to pivotal use, Turing became crucial in mechanizing the process of deciphering the Enigma. As a key figure in the British codebreaking division at Bletchley Park, Turing led his team in the laborious and time-sensitive development of a machine to defeat the Enigma. In March of 1940, the “Bombe” was born. Developed from pure theory, the first prototype of the Bombe supplied Allied forces with substantial quantities of lifesaving military intelligence by cracking the Enigma code.
Turing is one of the few singular computer scientists who arguably created something from nothing. His legacy in computer science and mathematical thought is one that influences me immensely, particularly given my passion for Artificial Intelligence. On top of his contributions to cryptology and early computing, Turing was vastly ahead of his time when it comes to his theories of machine intelligence. He posed the question of how to distinguish machine intelligence from human intelligence, which remains provocative and goes largely unanswered to this day.