This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
of Surrey 10 May 2012 Report by Peter Barr
“You deserved so much better.” Why did British Prime Minister Gordon Brown say “sorry” to the mathematical genius and war hero Alan Turing, who killed himself in 1954? Jim Al-Khalili told the story of Turing's extraordinary and ultimately tragic life in a lecture to commemorate the centenary of his birth – and explain the thinking of a man who helped create the world's first thinking machines... As well as focusing on Turing's stellar achievements in computer science and cryptography, Al-Khalili also showed the human side of Turing as a colourful character who chained his tea mug to a radiator so no-one could steal it and wore a gas mask to protect himself from pollen. The awkward-looking Turing was also an accomplished long-distance runner who could possibly have represented Britain at the 1948 Olympics. Turing also showed the classic signs of Asperger's Syndrome, but even in the midst of Britain's scientific elite at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, helping to decipher German codes, he was known as “the Prof.” Born in India in 1912 and sent to school in England, Turing's genius was clear from a very young age, but his headmaster wrote to his parents: “If he is to stay at public school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school." Despite this warning, Turing breezed through university at King's College, Cambridge, gaining a first-class degree in mathematics in 1934 and a PhD at Princeton four years later. What characterised Turing's early years, Al-Khalili explained, was his desire to tackle the “big problems” in maths. He was also fascinated with intelligence and how the brain works, and wondered if it would be possible for machines to mimic the brain and solve the same problems that humans can solve. This even extended to the concept of “mathematising biology” and the first attempts to develop what we now call artificial intelligence. Could maths express the biological world? Was there a mathematical basis to human intelligence? Turing was moved to pose questions like these by the death of his “first love”, Christopher Morcom, in 1930, while the pair were still at public school at Sherborne. Al-Khalili suggested that Turing was so disturbed by the death of his friend that he tried to “put his grief in a scientific context” and also turned away from religion, adopting a reductionist view, even though he still believed that there was “something about consciousness separate from the machine.” As time went by, the challenge for Turing was to build a machine that could run algorithms – basically, a series of commands – in order to “do the thinking” for humans. Another big problem was ‘decidability’ and the difficulty of finding “a proof that proof exists.” While grappling with these issues throughout the 1930s, Turing also concluded that the “halting problem” could not be decided – in other words, it was impossible to know if a machine would ever stop computing, once a program was started.
During the 1930s, Turing went on to develop the Universal Turing Machine which “laid the foundation” of modern computing, with ones and zeroes as the software and the device that “reads” them as the hardware. Turing's legacy is not restricted to the pure science of computing, however. He also made a major contribution to the war effort, helping to save many thousands of lives. In the late 1930s, he worked part-time as a cryptographer for the government, and the day after war was declared on September 4, 1939, he was sent to Bletchley Park to focus on cracking the codes used by U-boats. In the process, Turing was part of a team that built a series of electro-mechanical machines known as “bombes” – machines that helped to speed up calculations to decipher the codes. Al-Khalili compared the pressure of this top-secret project to “solving the world's hardest sudoku puzzle or thousands of lives would be lost.” After the war, whilst working at the National Physical Laboratory, Turing focused on developing a machine that could think, and developed the blueprint for a computer that could store programs – the Automatic Computing Engine. Al-Khalili said that Turing was not just interested in engineering, but also in the challenge of creating a machine that could think just like a human brain – “the most complex system in the universe.” Al-Khalili described how the American pathologist Thomas Harvey had cut up Albert Einstein's brain to investigate what made it special, and explained that Turing's challenge was to mimic the ordinary brain, not the brain of an Einstein. Turing's paper on Computing machinery and intelligence “kicked off” the science of artificial intelligence (AI), said Al-Khalili, by asking: “Can machines think?” In his paper, Turing developed a scenario which asked what would happen if a human was replaced by a machine, concluding it was hard for the machine to behave exactly like a human but that it may be just as clever. The machine may get the answer right, but not necessarily by thinking the same as a human. The ‘Turing test’ still intrigues computer scientists today – can we tell the difference between a computer and a human being? Scientists who favour a ‘strong AI’ view of computers believe there is no reason why machines should not be able to think just like humans. “Our brains are complex,” said AlKhalili, “but they are still just biological machines.” We may feel happy or sad, but just as we know that our feelings don't come from the heart, so machines may have the “computability” to mimic human characteristics such as intuition, etc. Turing, said Al-Khalili, was also fascinated by the chemical basis of morphogenesis – essentially the fact that simple cells (e.g. in embryos) which start off more or less identical and are not capable of thinking, interact with each other to produce a highly complex result (e.g. the different parts of human beings such as organs, limbs and brain, etc.). Can maths express how life began? Once life begins, cells reproduce and evolution kicks in, but how do we explain the transition from inanimate to animate things? In addition, Turing wondered how patterns emerge – e.g. the different shapes and colours in an individual animal. He worked out algorithms to produce cow-like patterns and showed them to people, asking “Does this look like a cow?” How does a leopard get its spots? The zebra its stripes? The individual cells may be blind to the “bigger picture” which produces complex patterns, but somehow via simple steps they interact and “learn” from feedback. Said Al-Khalili: “Turing was convinced that mathematics could be used to describe biological processes and intelligence itself.” And these ideas led to what we now call chaos theory (e.g. the unpredictability of weather), as well as to the concept of “self-organisation” (e.g. how individual grains of sand form shapely sand dunes).
“Things went wrong” in Turing's life in the early 1950s, said Al-Khalili, when he was convicted of an act of gross indecency and given a choice of imprisonment or chemical castration via hormone therapy to “cure” his homosexuality – illegal in those days. His security clearance was also removed. And in 1954, he killed himself, apparently by eating an apple laced with cyanide. In 2009, PM Gordon Brown issued an official apology, saying: “It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. So on behalf of the British Government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.” Al-Khalili summed up Turing's legacy by describing him not only as the “founding father of computer science” but also a hero who had served his country under great pressure and saved many lives – a genius who is finally getting the recognition he deserves, “up there with the greatest mathematicians of them all.” Q&A: Q: Turing was in awe of the thinking machine, but when it comes to thinking about thinking (e.g. intuition), is there not a subjective quality of consciousness which is not compatible with a machine? A: We are very far away from building a thinking machine, but in principle a simple program could develop the complexity that emerges from learning. Thinking is the software in the brain (a biological machine). Some people think that quantum processes are weird and also that consciousness is weird, and conclude that they must be connected. Q: Could ‘strong AI’ provide the answer to the ‘Chinese Room’ problem? (Could a problem written in Chinese be solved by a man or machine who do not understand Chinese?) A: The machine doesn't need to understand Chinese to come up with the answer, but that doesn't mean you couldn't have a computer that could understand – even though it doesn't need to. Q: The world of Bletchley Park was very different to an academic environment. Which one did Turing prefer? A: Turing exhibited Asperger traits and he did enjoy the environment at Bletchley Park. He treated his work as a puzzle not very different to other mathematical problems, but he was also under great pressure because he had to constantly develop new ways to solve problems in order to save people's lives. Professor Jon Oberlander of the University of Edinburgh's School of Informatics then proposed the Vote of Thanks, on behalf of the RSE and the Gifford Lectures Committee. The Gifford Lectures, he explained, originally focused on theological themes, but even though Turing turned his back on religion, it is “arguable that his work transforms the way we think about humanity and knowledge.”
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is Scottish Charity No. SC000470