Mar 19, 2012

The Turing Problem

100 years ago this year, the man who first conceived of the computer age was born. His name was Alan Turing. He was also a math genius, a hero of World War II and he is widely considered to be the father of artificial intelligence. But the world wasn't kind to Alan Turing. In 1952, he was arrested and convicted under a British law that prohibited "acts of gross indecency between men, in public or private."


In 1936, a young Alan Turing devised a machine that would ultimately change the world. You're staring at it right now--except Turing's "universal machine" was much, much simpler and totally imaginary. Nonetheless, he proved that with just a few simple ingredients, the machine could compute any mathematical problem that a human could compute.

You: So?

Us: So this was back when the only "computers" were people doing math by hand. It was also back when machines were single-function. "Reprogramming" required a screwdriver. To think the kinds of thoughts Turing was thinking, you had to be either a genius or a psychic.

Turing lived his whole life with machines. He built the machine that deciphered the German "Engima Code" during World War II. He imagined a day when machines would flirt with us, joke with us, listen to our problems and, above all, think for themselves. He even thought up a way to test whether machines had become indistinguishable from humans (for more on the Turing Test, check out our episode Talking to Machines).

The idea that machines would become our equals was unsettling for many of Turing's peers. (Frankly, it still unsettles a lot of folks today, just ask Robert!) But to Turing, it was just the natural extension of his fundamental belief that we, all of us, are machines ourselves in a way. And he worried that society might judge the computers of the future as harshly as it judged him.

Alan Turing was arrested and convicted in 1952 for activities that are no longer illegal in England. Janna Levin and David Leavitt help explain how Alan Turing's personal life may have shaped his relationship to machines. And James Gleick muses about how profound Turing's contributions to math and computing really were.

Read more:

Janna Levin, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer

James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

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