How Alan Turing Revolutionized Computing

“The presence of ‘humanity’ in programs can be identified by the occurrence of errors or through linguistic patterns. The Ukrainian boy, for example, often elaborated jokes that were not funny,” explains Marcelo Finger, a professor at the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics at USP.

Another of Turing’s accomplishments remained secret for more than three decades. In a Victorian mansion in the town of Bletchley, a group of geniuses hired by the British intelligence service was gathered during World War II to unravel the German military code generated by Enigma, a supposedly impenetrable cryptographic machine.

With the team, the mathematician began work on producing a machine called “the bomb”. The instrument identified weak points in the encryption and was responsible for revealing the position of German submarines. With the various intercepted information, the group may also have contributed to shortening the duration of the war.

It was around this same time that Turing almost married his teammate Joan Clarke, but when he confided in her that he was gay, she chose not to keep the engagement. The mathematician became involved with a young man named Arnold Murray and, after having his house broken into by a friend of his lover, reported the affair to the police.

He ended up being arrested for “indecency” after naively declaring to the authorities his sexual orientation, then considered illegal. Perhaps because of his importance to the government, Turing was offered his freedom on the condition that he undergo “treatment” with synthetic estrogen injections, which he did for a year. No one can say whether what happened next was a consequence of the dissatisfaction caused by the supposed cure or simply an accident, but (watch out for the 60+ year old spoiler!) Turing was found dead after biting into an apple poisoned with cyanide in 1954.

An unfortunate end for the young man who began studying mathematics at Cambridge University in 1931, and a few years later published his theory of computability in the paper On Computable Numbers. In the paper he states that there are problems that have no solution and that not every logical statement is able to be proved from any formal system of mathematics. The conclusion contradicted, above all, the theory of the mathematician David Hilbert, who believed that it was impossible to exist in mathematics something whose truth could never be discovered.

Until then, no mechanical process had been invented that could determine when a logical procedure could ultimately be proven or unproven. And it was this very concept that fueled Turing’s curiosity. On the Turing Archive for the History of Computing website, author Jack Copeland explains the creation of the Turing machine, a hypothetical device that would change function as needed. So it could function, for example, as a calculator and then turn into a word processor. “Our entire current theory of computation is based on these machines,” says Professor Marcelo Finger.

“I was shocked to learn that, despite his achievements, Turing is almost an unknown.”