Five inventions of Alan Turing that influenced the development of science and the IT industry

The biography of Alan Turing is one of the most exciting and tragic in the history of science. From childhood, he was different from his peers: he was interested in mathematics, played chess, studied coding. Classmates and colleagues considered Alan a genius and an eccentric, and there were reasons for this. For example, he chained his mug to a radiator to prevent it from being stolen, and rode a broken bicycle while wearing a gas mask to avoid being allergic to pollen.

In addition to science, Turing was running and showing world-class results. In 1948, in a cross-country race, the scientist finished ahead of Olympic silver medalist Tom Richards.

Alan Turing during the race

Alan Turing during the race

For 41 years of his life, Turing played a big role in the victory over Nazi Germany, the development of artificial intelligence, the creation of computers and mathematical biology. Despite all his achievements, in 1952 the mathematician would face accusations of homosexuality from the British authorities, lost his security status and was suspended from his job as a cryptanalysis consultant. in GCHQ.

In this article, we talked about five of his inventions that have influenced modern science, the IT industry and society as a whole.

1. The concept of a computer

In 1936, after graduating from King’s College Cambridge, Alan Turing in the article “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” proposed the concept of an abstract computer. It consisted in creating a program that is stored in the memory of a computer and can solve any problem.

The Turing machine consisted of the following parts:

  • a cellular tape of infinite length with a head that moves along it;

  • alphabet with a limited number of characters;

  • a table that reflected the state of a particular character of the alphabet.

The head had to move along the tape in accordance with a given program and sequentially execute user commands. She could read or write characters to cells until the task was completed. So the scientist wanted to prove that any problem can be solved by sequential execution of operations.

Later, the abbreviation TM (Turing machine) became generally accepted. Today, any device, such as a washing machine or a TV, works on the basis of this concept. Learn more about how the machine works experts from the University of Cambridge. By using emulator it is possible to understand the algorithm of its action in practice.

2. Decryption machine

In 1939, when World War II began, Alan Turing took an active part in breaking German ciphers in the UK’s main cipher division, Bletchley Park. Together with the team, Turing developed methods for deciphering Enigma codes in order to learn in advance about German military attacks.

Breaking the Enigma code was nearly impossible, as every day the German machine operators generated a new key that included settings for the rotors, reflector, and pickup panel. That is, to decrypt each message, it was necessary to know the specific settings.

Turing designed and built a machine that could automatically decode messages. His invention was a continuation of the work of Polish scientists. The machine consisted of an electromechanical mechanism for reading and decrypting, and many rotors and wires to create a complex encryption combination. It was put into operation in March 1940.

The car was named Bombe because of the characteristic sound of the clockwork during operation.

The car was named Bombe because of the characteristic sound of the clockwork during operation.

Bombe allowed British intelligence to quickly receive information about the actions of Germany. But in 1941, Turing and his team realized that they did not have enough people and machines to decipher all the messages of the enemy. It was not possible to draw the attention of the leadership to the problem, so the mathematicians wrote a letter directly to Churchill. He ordered to meet the requirements of scientists. Later, more than two hundred machines were put into operation, which worked around the clock.

In addition to creating the Bombe, Turing had several other achievements in the field of military cryptanalysis. He developed an indicator procedure for the German Navy, a more efficient method of using the Bombe, a method for determining the parameters of the Lorenz wheel, and the Delilah portable speech encoder.

3. Test to test the thinking of machines

In 1946, Turing developed the first ACE computer with the ability to store a program in memory. Although the pilot project was carried out without the participation of the scientist himself, and the full version of ACE was never built, Turing is still often called the father of modern computers.

While working at the University of Manchester, the scientist came up with the “Imitation Game”. He spoke about this test in the article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, which was published in 1950 in the journal Mind. Its essence was that if a person who interacts with a computer cannot distinguish it from another person, then we can assume that the computer can think.

Turing’s work became the basis for creating programs that are designed to improve the computer’s ability to process natural language and understand human speech. New concepts have emerged: artificial intelligence and machine learning. The test began to be actively discussed in the context of ethical and social issues that are associated with the creation of machines and their ability to think.

4. Computer music

In 1951, the BBC made the first recording of computer music at the Computer Laboratory in Manchester. The machine was created and programmed by Alan Turing. It was huge, occupied an entire floor and could generate three songs: the British anthem, the children’s song “Baa, Baa Black Sheep” and the jazz standard “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller.

To create music, the scientist used the principles of mathematical logic, developed algorithms that could create sound waves using a computer, used the ideas of abstract music and algorithmic composition, in which music was generated automatically based on certain rules.

Although Turing programmed his machine to play musical sounds, he did not combine them into melodies. This was done by scientist Christopher Strachey, and in 2016 by New Zealand researchers Jack Copland and Jason Long from the University of Canterbury discovered and recovered a recording of computer music.

5. Reaction-diffusion model

In 1952, Alan Turing published an article entitled “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. In it, he explored the processes of development of natural patterns in living organisms.

The scientist developed a reaction-diffusion model, where substances, an activator and an inhibitor, spread in tissues at different speeds and interact with each other. This is how they create complex structures and shapes. In his work, Turing described six main patterns, and in 2014, scientists at Brandeis University were able to reproduce them on synthetic cell structures.

Using the reaction-diffusion model, scientists are trying to explain various patterns in living organisms.  For example, stripes on zebras or displacement of the heart to the left side of the chest

Using the reaction-diffusion model, scientists are trying to explain various patterns in living organisms. For example, stripes on zebras or displacement of the heart to the left side of the chest

The work of the scientist opened a new area of ​​research related to the application of mathematical models in biology. They made it possible to predict what processes would take place in organisms and how they would develop. Turing’s ideas in the field of morphogenesis have found application in cloning technology, biomedical research, and the development of new drugs.

The accusation of the authorities, the tragic death and the significance of Turing’s ideas for science and society

In 1952, Turing was charged with indecency by British authorities for having a sexual relationship with a man and offered him a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. The scientist chose the second option, and in 1954 Turing was found dead in his apartment. The exact cause of death is unknown, it could be either suicide or accidental poisoning with hydrocyanic acid fumes.

In 2009, Alan Turing was recognized as “one of the UK’s most notorious victims of homophobia, and the Prime Minister issued a public apology for the persecution of the scientist. In 2013, Turing was officially pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II for “obscenity” charges. In 2017, the “Turing Law” came into force in the country on the posthumous pardon of men who were convicted of homosexual relationships.

The developments, ideas and discoveries of the mathematician became the basis for the development of modern science. His achievements in the field of computers and artificial intelligence are recognized all over the world. In honor of the scientist, the prestigious annual award of the Association for Computing Machinery was named the “Turing Award”. In 2002, the mathematician was named “one of the 100 greatest Britons in history” and the Bank of England issued banknotes featuring Turing.

Exterior of the £50 note.  Source Bank of England

Turing’s life story shows that “sometimes people who are nothing do amazing things.” This quote is repeated several times by the main character historical drama “The Imitation Game”where Alan Turing was played by actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

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