Alan Turing: Setting the Expectation for Technology

Last night I went to see ‘The Imitation Game’ at the wonderful Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. For anyone who hasn’t heard about this film, it’s based on the book ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’ and explores the period of the Second World War when a team of codebreakers, led by Turing, focussed on breaking secret Nazi naval codes.

The messages were encrypted using a machine thought to be impenetrable: Engima. But, since all key communications were sent using Enigma, it became as simple as: Break the code, win the war.

Every night at midnight the Nazis would change the settings of Enigma, and a new day of codebreaking would have to begin. From scratch.

Whilst the British government hired cryptologists and linguists to try and break the code, Turing insisted that only a machine could beat another machine. He pioneered the use (against much resistance) of an electromechanical device to search for possible correct settings for an Enigma message such as rotor order, rotor settings and plugboard settings (no, me either).

Historians estimate that the eventual breaking of the Enigma code brought the War to an end by two years, saving countless lives in the process.

Following the conclusion of the War, Turing’s research led him to the development of ‘Turing machines’. ‘Today, we call them computers’ are the last words of the film.

This blog post isn’t an attempt to do justice to the immense contribution Alan Turing made in his short and ultimately tragic lifetime.  Because a) it’s not the right platform and b) I’m not the right author. I’ve studied a little bit of the period, seen the film and plan on reading the book on which it is based. That’s it.

I have no expertise in this subject whatsoever. All I have is a fascination in it, and a capacity to acknowledge when one single person can change the course of history. And Turing is one of them.

Hugh Alexander, who worked alongside Turing in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park, the centre of the codebreaking attempts, said this about him:

“In the early days, he was the only person who thought the problem worth tackling…the pioneer’s work always tends to be forgotten when experience and routine later make everything seem easy…many of us in Hut 8 felt that the magnitude of Turing’s contribution was never fully realised by the outside world.”

Historian and wartime codebreaker Asa Briggs said, “You needed exceptional talent, you needed genius at Bletchley and Turing’s was that genius.”

I find it particularly interesting that Turing spent the years following the end of the War to his death in 1954, researching and writing papers on artificial intelligence. In his 1950 paper entitled ‘Computer machinery and intelligence’ he starts by stating, “I propose to answer the question, ‘Can machines think?’

And by think he means, think like a human. Here’s an example of a question and answer session which he used to set criteria for ‘The Imitation Game’:

Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.

A : Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.

Q: Add 34957 to 70764.

A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.

Q: Do you play chess?

A: Yes.

Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?

A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.

The ‘Turing test’ exists to this day. It’s designed to test a machine’s capacity to exhibit human behaviour. On 7 June 2014 Eugene Goostman won a Turing Test competition, organised to mark the 60th anniversary of Turing’s death. He designed a robot whose chat convinced 33% of the contest’s judges that it was human.

Turing ended his paper by saying, “We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all purely intellectual fields…We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” 

If he had lived, where would his work have led us to today? Being the type of human being whose thought processes could change the course of the biggest war the world had ever seen, I find it hard to believe his achievements would have stopped there.

What would he have challenged us to believe was possible? Would machine learning and all the things that Microsoft (and others) are extolling the virtues of be more commonplace in businesses than they are currently? Or would it be something different? Is technology doing everything that it could be doing in your business? It’s certainly a question that’s worth asking.

As Vint Cerf writes in this BBC article released on what would have been Turing’s 100th birthday, “Computing is an industry in a constant state of innovation, always pushing beyond the limits of current capability – Turning set this expectation…[He] was born into a world that was very different, culturally and technologically, yet his contribution has never been more important.”

We will of course, never know. What I do believe however, is that the path will be set by the power of talented individuals.

It was Turing that ‘thought the problem worth tackling’. Pushing beyond the limits of current capability is an expectation worth preserving, and pure raw talent is what shall keep this going.

Lastly, please be encouraged to go and see ‘The Imitation Game’ – its plaudits are not without merit.