War hero: He was no he-man with hair on his chest. He stuttered. But when war came, when the bombs rained down from the skies, when Germans sank ships at sea sending food to England, he is the one who broke the secret code of the German high command, a code thought to be unbreakable. He saved countless lives and shortened the war by at least two years. Although Churchill and the king knew he was a war hero, the public did not for 30 years because his work for British intelligence was top secret.
The Universal Turing Machine: Before the war he would lie in a meadow and think about the most powerful computer imaginable. Back then a computer was a person who did mathematical calculations for a living. But his computer would be a machine, one that could not only add, subtract, multiply and divide, but also do calculus and trigonometry and answer any mathematical question put to it.
That brought him to two shocking conclusions:
- The most powerful computer imaginable was amazingly simple in design.
- There would always be mathematical questions it could not answer no matter what.
His computer design:
- An infinite tape
- A reading head – to read and write characters on the tape and to move it forwards and backwards.
- Memory – to remember what it had seen on the tape
- A program – a set of instructions of what to do next with the tape based on what it had read. The program could be read from tape and stored in memory.
All advances in computers since have been about speed, memory, ease of use and programming them to do new things, not about power. At bottom computers are still Turing machines.
After the war Turing helped to make Britain’s first computer. It could play chess and play “God Save the King” but it could not write love letters.
The Turing Test: Turing said we will know computers and humans have equal intelligence when we can no longer tell them apart by talking to them without seeing them. When asked how will we know computers are not just faking it, he said how do we know other humans are not just faking it?
Trial and death: Turing was honest to a fault. When he called the police after his place was robbed, they found out during questioning that he had a male lover. They arrested him for “gross indecency”. Tried and found guilty, the judge gave him a choice: prison or cure. The medicine for the cure did not work. Instead he grew breasts. He could no longer go out in public.
He loved the Disney film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). So to end it all he ate a poisoned apple.
In 2009 the British government said it was sorry – but to this day it refuses to pardon him for breaking the law.