# Decoding the legacy of Alan Turing

The birth centenary of the legendary mathematical and computing genius was on June 23

Every now and then, random computer and web applications ask us to prove
that we are indeed human. This popular and ubiquitous security test,
widely known as Captcha, requires us to enter characters that we are
shown to convince the system that we’re not code. Technologists know
this as a reverse Turing test.

Short for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and
Humans Apart’, Captcha is the converse of the Turing test, devised by
legendary mathematical and computing genius Alan M. Turing.

### Turing’s theory

Turing’s theory in the Thirties, long before computers existed as we
know it, was that if a human was to interact with a machine, and if he
was convinced that the machine’s response was that of a human’s, then
the computing system would have passed the Turing test.

On Saturday, as the world celebrates the birth centenary of this
legendary genius, one wonders if the world of technology and logic would
have been the same without his groundbreaking contributions.

His life, packed with creative and scientific breakthroughs, met with a
tragic end at the age of 41. To merely call him the ‘Father of
theoretical computer science’ is to dismiss him with an easy cliche of a
tribute.

### Codebreaking

Turing’s most well-known and celebrated achievement, perhaps the one
easiest understood, was the work he did with Britain’s codebreaking
centre when he cracked German code ‘Enigma’ during World War II. His
contribution there was significant for the electromechanical
crypt-analysis machine he devised, the Bombe, which helped the Allies
listen to German secrets.

### Tragic end

However, his contribution to his country, and towards the understanding
of computer science and technology, did not stop his conviction in 1952.
He was convicted for homosexuality, and put through chemical castration
(treatment with female hormones) before he died of cyanide poisoning,
widely believed to have been a suicide.

This tragic end to a remarkable life, one that is remembered not only
for his contributions to technology as we know it today, but also for
the philosophical pursuit of understanding the human mind, was
acknowledged and recognised 56 long years later, when British Prime
Minister Gordon Brown made a formal public apology for the way the
British government treated him after the war.

### Years of campaigning

The unequivocal apology was the culmination of intense campaigning by
scientists, technologists, academics and leading public figures.

Though it took over five decades for the government to officially
acknowledge both his genius and his contribution to the outcome of World
War II, the scientific community had for decades spent time and effort
to decode his seminal work, which touches upon a range of mathematical
and computational fields from algorithms and cryptology to artificial
intelligence and biological and life sciences.

As early as in the Sixties, the scientific community instituted an
award, considered the highest distinction in computer science, in his
name: the Association for Computing Machinery’s Turing Award.

Worldwide, scientists and technologists have planned a number of
programmes to be held through the year, to mark his birth centenary.

### Google doodle

In a fitting tribute on Saturday morning, Google marked his 100th birth
anniversary with one of its creative doodles. A whole generation of tech
enthusiasts, who may not have familiarised themselves with the
pioneering works of Turing, learnt through this interactive model, what
Turing’s contribution was all about. What Google’s Turing Machine does
is give you a binary series to match by creating a short programme using
the buttons provided at the bottom. On getting it right, the letters of
the grey Google logo get filled with colour.

### His contributions

Turing’s most widely impacting contribution is perhaps the introduction
of two key concepts — of algorithms and computing machines — that he
outlined in his paper on ‘Computable Number’ in 1936, while at King’s
College, Cambridge.

His inventions and theoretical understanding of computational logic
have, over the years, paved the way for researchers in a wide range of
fields.

### The Bombe

Turing’s work was first noticed when he devised the Bombe, after which
he headed to the National Physical Laboratory where he created among the
first designs for a stored computer program called the Automatic
Computing Engine.

A complex machine, this laid the foundation for the first pilot
electronic computer built in Britain around 1951. His basic design was
used in several computers and computing technologies, from mainframes to
the world’s first personal computer that came over three decades later.

### The Turing machine

Turing’s most lasting contribution, however, was the Turing machine. A
machine or computational method, he proposed that a long piece of tape
could be used to write simple instructions, allowing the machine to read
an instruction at a time. The machine could then use one of its coded
algorithms to process these instructions.

Why was this important? This was pathbreaking simply because till then
the idea of a stored programme, reading and processing multiple
instructions had not been conceived.

This theoretical understanding is what makes Turing the father of
theoretical computation, and the pioneer of computing technology as we
know it today. Going through the list of technologies and scientific
projects that Turing either completed, contributed to or left
unfinished, it is difficult to not be amazed at his genius.

**Diverse interests**

From speech encryption to his fascinating work where he was trying to
understand the structure of plant petals and seeds, and the adherence of
sunflower petals to the Fibonacci sequence, Turing was one whose
genius, and inquisitiveness, knew no bounds.

His lesser-known achievements are as fascinating to read about as his
lasting contributions; for instance, did you know that back in 1950, as
part of work on artificial intelligence, Turing wrote the first-ever
chess computer programme ‘Turbochamp’.

Though it took a few other scientists, and a couple more years for the
first successful chess program to be played on the computer, the video
of the game he played, back in 1952, as the program, against his
colleague Alick Glennie is an all-time favourite of tech enthusiasts.
The program, and Turing, lost to Glennie in 29 moves.

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