Saturday, June 23, 2012 marks the 100th birthday of famed British computer scientist, Alan Turing. To honor his life and his incredible accomplishments, a special event will be held this weekend at the University of Reading in conjunction with the upcoming London 2012 Olympics.
"Turing100" will feature robot demonstrations, interactive machine learning programs aimed at children, and lectures on a few of the many disciplines that Turing influenced, including artificial intelligence, code-breaking, computer programming, and the philosophy of mathematics.
Alan Turing is oft considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Among a myriad of noteworthy achievements, he invented the "Turing machine" in 1936, a device considered to be the earliest forerunner of the modern computer. He was also the first to describe in detail a stored-program computer, one capable of keeping program instructions in electronic memory. In addition, Turing developed an experiment to define machine "intelligence," called the Turing test. This was later reversed engineered into the CAPTCHA test, which you've undoubtedly taken before. It's the test that pops up when logging into certain websites meant to determine whether or not it's an internet bot or a human attempting to access protected content.
Left: An artistic representation of a Turing machine. Right: An example of a modern CAPTCHA test.
Turing's Olympic honoring partially stems from the fact that he was an incredibly skilled marathon runner, posting a best time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds, an astounding 6 minutes, 19 second mile pace! In 1948, Turing actually tried out for the British Olympic marathon team, placing fifth in the trials.
When a friend once queried
Turing about why he trained so hard, Turing replied, "I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard."
Turing also suffered from other stresses that undoubtedly weighed on his mind. Chief among them, he was a homosexual in a society where homosexuality was misunderstood and actually illegal. In 1952, Turing admitted to authorities that he had a sexual relationship with another man. As a result, he was charged with gross indecency and given a choice: imprisonment or chemical castration. Turing chose the latter.
The castration, conducted via oestrogen hormone injections, left
Turing impotent. He also suffered from enlargement of the breasts and a bloated physique.
Perhaps as a result of the conviction and therapy, Turing apparently committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41. His body was discovered in his room, a half eaten apple strewn beside his bed. It is believed that the apple was laced with cyanide. Biographer David Leavitt speculated that Turing may have been re-enacting an iconic scene from Snow White
, his favorite fairy tale.
Over half a century later in 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued
a full apology on behalf of the British government, saying that the way in which Turing was treated was "appalling" and that the scientist deserved recognition for his contribution to mankind.
This year, that recognition is being given. 2012 has been dubbed
"The Alan Turing Year," and coordinated events are planned across the globe.
A statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park. (Image by Jon Callas, Wikimedia Commons)
Less than a month ago, Professor Qiang Shen, Head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Aberystwyth, carried the Olympic torch in Turing's memory.
"[Turing's] achievements led to the computerised era we live in today..." Shen said
after completing his run. "Above all, his work is an inspiration to future generations
of scientists and engineers."