Alan Turing Contribution To Computer Science

Alan Turing Contribution To Computer Science


Alan Turning is known to be a pioneer of many facets of the computer age.  The digital computer, artificial intelligence, memory subroutines,  the Turning Machine, the Turing Test, and the application of algorithms to computers are all ideas somehow related to this man.

Alan Mathison Turing was born in Paddington, London, on June 23, 1912.  He was a precocious child and began his interests in science and mathematics at a young age, but was never concerned about other right-brain classes such as English.  This continued until an important friend of his passed away and set Turing on a path to achieve what his friend could no longer accomplish.  When his friend Christopher Morcom died, Turing was launched into thoughts in physics about the physical mind being embodied in matter and whether quantum-mechanical theory affects the traditional problem of mind and matter.  Many say today that this was the beginnings of Turing’s Turning Machine and the test still used today for artificial intelligence, the Turing Test.


Soon after his public schooling, Turing began working on his undergraduate at King’s College.  Here he became interested in the readings of Von Neumann’s quests into the logical foundations of quantum mechanics.  Through these readings, Turing was believed to structure his thinking from the emotional states that he had been suffering from to a more valid form of thought.

Turing earned a fellowship at King’s college and the following year the Smith’s Prize for his work in probability theory.  Afterward, he chose a path away from pure math into mathematical logic and began to work on solving the Entscheidungsproblem, a problem in decidability.    This was an attempt to prove that there was a method by which any given mathematical assertion was provable.  As he began to dive into this he worked on first defining what a method was.  In doing so he began what today is called the Turing Machine.  The Turing Machine is a three-fold inspiration composed of logical instructions, the action of the mind, and a machine which can in principle be embodied in a practical physical form.  It is the application of an algorithm embodied in a finite state machine.

The Turing Machine is a simple kind of computer.  It is limited to reading and writing symbols on a tape and moving the tape along to the left or right.  The tape is marked off into squares, each square representing a cell.  Each cell on the tape can hold at most one symbol.  At any point when the Turing Machine is operating it can read or write on one of these cells, the cell located under the read/write head.  One aspect that set the Turning Machine apart from other computational machines of the same period was that the Turing Machine was designed to perform many functions.  It could do any function that was fed to it on this tape that acted as an algorithm, whereas, other computational machines at that time were designed to perform only one task.  The concept of the Turing Machine was then similar to the digital computers used today.

Soon WWII began in Europe.  During WWII, Turing was called by the Department of Communications in Great Britain.  He was asked to help decipher the German codes that they were using to scramble their communications.  The Germans had developed a sophisticated computer call the Enigma.  It was able to generate a constantly changing code that was impossible for the code breakers to decipher in a timely fashion.  Turing aided in the development of another computer used by Great Britain called Colossus that was able to decipher the communications coded by Enigma thus aided in the defeat of the Germans in WWII.

After the war, Turing carried out many tasks.  He became a very successful distance runner, at one point considering the Olympics.  He Furthered his development of a true digital computer by creating the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) while working for the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).  Before completing ACE he moved from working for the NPL to the University of Manchester where he started an even more sophisticated digital computer called Manchester Automatic Computer Machine (MADAM).  One interesting fact, as he developed MADAM, he actually used MADAM to further his research and development of the machine itself.

At around 1967 he began to explore the relationships of computers and nature, an all-new concept, initiating his beginnings in artificial intelligence.  Turing was convinced that by the year 2000, a fully animated thinking machine, a machine that would replicate human thought patterns would be in existence.  In 1949 he published one of his more popular papers, “Intelligent Machines.”  From his new ideas in artificial intelligence, he sparked many heated debates with other scientists and new notions that are still discussed today about the moral aspect of creating a machine that has a thought process equal to that of a human.

Scientists would argue Turing’s radical views of creating such a machine.  Turing confuted these by asking simply for someone to create a test that a computer could not be trained to answer.  He would then go on to explain that no such test exists as a computer is capable of anything given the adequate software or algorithm.  In 1950 he published one of his most famous papers describing what today is known as the Turing Test.  This was a test where a person would ask questions from both a human and a machine without knowing which was which.  If after a reasonable amount of time the difference between the two was not obvious, then the machine was thought to be somewhat intelligent.  A version of this test is still used today by the Boston Museum of Computers to host a contest of the best artificial machines for the Loebner Prize.


Turing continued working on the digital computer and ideas in artificial intelligence until he died on June 7, 1954.  He was found with a half-eaten apple loaded with cyanide, the half-eaten apple a familiar symbol of innocence.  Some say he had committed suicide over an embarrassing incident with a 19-year old student, while his mother says he was just performing another experiment with household chemicals and became careless.  Whichever it may be, Alan Turing passed away and left the world with many raw ideas to work out.  In my opinion, the biggest contribution that he left with us was his idea of a single machine running off a finite number of algorithms to perform multiple tasks.  This being the vision of the computers we all use today.



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