History 427: History of the Information Age

HIST 427: Alan Turing

Last Tuesday in History of the Information Age, we read a few articles regarding early encryption systems and the accomplishments of Alan Turing.

Alan Turing: Scientific Accomplishments

We first discussed the accomplishments (and their importance) of Alan Turing. Alan Turing is credited with furthering computer programing and the “Turing Machine,” breaking the German Enigma Code, and devising the “Turing Test.”

As a British scientist during World War Two, Alan Turing laid part of the groundwork for modern computing, as his Turing Machine showcased the ways in which automation could be combined with computing to solve some – but not all problems.

Turing is also known for his breaking of the German Enigma code, a concept that my table group discussed at length. An “enigma” refers to a cipher machine that changes and rearranges messages. During the time, Germany was using double-encrypted messages that utilized code words and letter scrambling. Poland was the first country to realize that Germany’s code could be cracked, however, the country was quickly overrun, forcing their information to be passed onto France and the United Kingdom.

As some may know from popular culture references to Turing, Turing was able to crack the code by quickly taking note of commonly used phrases. The phrase “Heil Hitler” was commonly used at the end of each code.

Through cracking the code, Turing devised the “Bombe Machine,” a device that could detect settings used within an enigma, allowing German encryption to be deciphered. The deciphering of the German code allowed the Allied forces to avoid German U-Boats, therefore saving countless lives.

Due to their classified nature, Turing’s accomplishments were not made apparent to the general public until the 1970s. However, part of the importance of Turing’s accomplishments may be found not in the sheer advancement of computing technology, but rather, the necessity for human creativity and thinking – a necessity that has also been made apparent in previous class discussions of figures such as Ada Lovelace. Modern computing devices are built upon Turing’s ideas – including processors, chips, and other foundational elements.

The “Turing Test” refers to a qualitative test devised by Turing in 1950 that allows testers to discern between the capabilities of machine and human intelligence, and to detect whether or not a computer can successfully imitate human intelligence.

The test “consists of a series of questionnaires, in which the interrogator poses the same question to an anonymous computer and an anonymous human. If the interrogator cannot distinguish between the two, then the computer passes the test.”

No computer has ever passed the Turing test, demonstrating the limitations, at least in their current state, of Artificial Intelligence. (AI). Elements of memory, speech and voice, and emotion cannot yet be mimicked by a computer, and they certainly could not be mimicked in the 1950s. The Turing Test illustrates the ways in which computers are still very much so accessories and tools – accessories and tools whose goals are to enhance elements of life for humans.

“Mathematical reasoning may be regarded rather schematically as the exercise of a combination of two facilities, which we may call intuition and ingenuity.” – Alan Turing

Hom, Elaine J. “Alan Turing Biography: Computer Pioneer, Gay Icon.” Live Science. June 23, 2013. https://www.livescience.com/29483-alan-turing.html

Alan Turing: Social Implications

While Turing’s accomplishments were kept classified for security reasons for multiple decades after the war, Turing did not receive the appreciation or treatment he deserved due to his openly gay identity. In 1952, Turing was convicted of “acts of gross indecency” after admitting to having a sexual relationship with another man. Turing was required to lose his security clearances and undergo a hormonal process known as chemical castration.

Two years later, Turing would commit suicide through cyanide poisoning – an act that some claim to be an “accident from a chemistry experiment.”

While we can not say for certain what Turing’s life or accomplishments would have looked like in a different social climate, it is certain that his ideas regarding the interplay between humans and computers have shaped modern computing, and that, like many others, he faced severe limitations and unnecessary punishment for factors of identity outside of his control. Turing’s legacy is that of ingenuity and creativity, one that reminds us that we are not, in fact, separate from our machines, but rather, our machines are in many ways an extension of self.

Turing was granted a formal pardon by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013, 60 years after his convicted.

Citations

Ashish. “Cracking the Uncrackable: How Did Alan Turing and His Team Crack The Enigma Code?” Science ABC. 2016. https://www.scienceabc.com/innovation/cracking-the-uncrackable-how-did-alan-turing-and-his-team-crack-the-enigma-code.html

Hom, Elaine J. “Alan Turing Biography: Computer Pioneer, Gay Icon.” Live Science. June 23, 2013. https://www.livescience.com/29483-alan-turing.html

“The Enigma of Alan Turing.” News and Information. Central Intelligence Agency. April 10, 2015. https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2015-featured-story-archive/the-enigma-of-alan-turing.html

“The Turing Test, 1950.” The Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook. https://www.turing.org.uk/scrapbook/test.html

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