Alan Turing - genius, hero, victim
One of the most celebrated and vilified figures of our times was Alan Turing.
He’s been dubbed the father of artificial intelligence and computer science. His code-breaking work during World War II foreshortened the conflict, saving many millions of lives.
Born on 23 June 1912, his genius was recognised while still at school. He graduated as a mathematician at Kings College Cambridge, and was awarded his PhD from Princeton in 1938.
During World War II, he worked for the Government’s code-breaking centre, the Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. It was here that he developed techniques for breaking German coded messages, enabling the Allies to win key military engagements.
After the war, came his work in computer development at the National Physical Laboratory, and then at the Computing Machine Laboratory at the Victoria University of Manchester.
Despite his enormous contribution to the war effort and scientific progress, Alan Turing was brutalised by the UK criminal justice system. In 1952, he was prosecuted for "gross indecency" under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Against his original and better judgement, he pleaded guilty. To avoid a prison sentence, he agreed to medical treatment that amounted to chemical castration.
Two years later, on 7 June 1954, Alan Turing was found by his housekeeper dead in bed of cyanide poisoning. An inquest concluded he had committed suicide.
It took over half a century for the Government to make amends. In 2009, the UK Prime Minister issued a formal apology for his treatment. Below is a link to a news report about the apology.
In August 2014, Queen Elizabeth II pardoned him, only the fourth royal pardon granted since World War II. In 2017, the Government passed the “Alan Turing Law” which provided a general amnesty to men convicted under anti-gay legislation.
Meanwhile, his scientific genius has been recognised around the world. The UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence is named the Alan Turing Institute in his honour. More recently, he was selected to be the person featured on the new £50 note. The Bank of England Governor described him as, “A giant on whose shoulders so many now stand.”
Perhaps the best summary of his role in science and society comes in the plaque at the foot of his statue in Sackville Park, Manchester: “Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime code-breaker, victim of prejudice.”
The words used in “She, You, I” are taken directly from contemporaneous newspaper reports of his death and inquest. The picture below is of Bletchley Park, scene of the ground-breaking work and now a popular museum.
There are many books about Alan Turing and his work. Below is the most important.
“Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges, published by Walker Books, 1983
The Alan Turing Institute that continues his legacy is here.
Andrew Hodges maintains a website on Alan Turing which can be found here: Alan Turing: the enigma
“The Imitation Game” released in 2014, directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore, is based on Andrew Hodges’ book.