Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Turing's statue

There is a Turing statue in Manchester, but frankly
it's unrecognisable. You can do better, guys.
There is nothing editors like more than anniversaries. Recently I suggested a feature to a magazine. 'It could work,' they said, 'as long as you can find an anniversary to tie it to. We need a hook.' Frankly, this is a load of rubbish. The reading public really doesn't care why a magazine or newspaper is coming up with a particular story as long as it's interesting. But editors feel they have to devise a justification. They need a reason that a particular story should be used, so they arbitrarily use the factor of a significant date. It keeps them happy, bless them.

This being the case, we can expect a flood of books on Alan Turing as it was the 100th anniversary (wey-hey!) of his birth in June. Leaving aside the fact Turing would certainly have preferred a binary anniversary (2018 will be the 1000000th anniversary of his death), I'm currently reading the first of these books for review. I don't want to talk about that book itself here (it's Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age by Jack Copeland) as it will be reviewed on very soon - suffice it to say it's shaping up well - but I would like to shamelessly steal what appears to be Jack Copeland's thesis.

This is that the remarkable things we remember Turing for are probably his lesser contributions to the world. Many know that Turing was one of the leading codebreakers dealing with the Enigma and Tunny machines at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. And we may well remember Turing's contributions to the idea of artificial intelligence, with the 'Turing test' that is supposed to show whether or not a computer can pass itself off as a human being. And the tragic end to his life, committing suicide after being handled terribly by the ungrateful authorities (who should have been treating him like a national hero) because he was a homosexual. But there is even more to this remarkable man who, in his biography, sometimes comes across a little like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.

Arguably the reason we should really remember Turing is that at the most fundamental level he invented the modern computer. Forget Babbage - well, no don't forget him, but cast him, as Copeland does as grandfather of the computer. It was Turing that dreamed up the real thing. In a sense it was just a throwaway initially. His theoretical universal computing machine was devised as a way of exploring an abstruse (though important) aspect of mathematics. But as Turing himself came to realise, this was much more. In effect, what Turing did was invent computer science. Pretty well everything else everyone else has done that is labelled 'computer science' is the engineering to put Turing's vision into practice. Turing's work was the 'theory of everything' of computing.

Companies like IBM, Apple, Microsoft and Google should be putting up statues in his honour all around the world faster than you can say 'serious profits.'


  1. Yes, indeed, Alan Turing is the best candidate for "Father of Modern Computing" with his Universal Turing Machine in the 1936 paper. The Americans will of course say it was John von Neumann with his “Von Neumann Architecture”, written while at Princeton after WWII. However, the book “Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe” has a marvelous picture of Princeton’s copy of Turing’s paper. It was so heavily referenced that the paper has come unbound from its binding.

    Also he was quite an athlete, who almost qualified to run for GB in the 1948 Olympic marathon (see

  2. Quite right Ken (really good to see you at the OR do, btw). The book I mention also shows a host of other computing myths (usually US) where Turing was actually there first, like computer generated music. And it points out his death could well have been accidental rather than suicide.