His ideas led to early versions of modern computing and helped win the Second World War. Yet he died like a criminal for his homosexuality. Alan Turing is just one of many extraordinary people whose death, since 1851, has been forgotten because of their sexual orientation.
But who was he? And why is he worth remembering?
Born in London in 1912, Turing is one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. He was also an excellent logician, cryptographer and philosopher. In other words, he was a real genius.
He embraced the first visions of modern computing and produced insights into what later became known as “artificial intelligence“. Being one of the most influential cryptoanalysts of the Second World War, he also contributed to accelerate the victory of the Allies. His only flaw? Being a homosexual. And for that he even deserved chemical castration.
The Life of Alan Turing
Turing was born in London on 23 June 1912. After graduating in mathematics he devoted himself mainly to cryptography at the Universities of Cambdridge, Princeton and Oxford.
When England went to war in 1939, he took part in espionage services in a group of cryptoanalysts at Bletchley Park, in the so-called “Station X“. In this way he helped to decrypt Nazi military messages encoded through the Enigma machine (the system developed by the Germans to encrypt their communications).
It was then that Turing perfected the “Turingery” method, by which the British deciphered Nazi messages using cryptographic errors. If two messages were sent by mistake with the same encryption key, Turingery allowed to derive the code used to encrypt both communications and then decrypt the content of the messages. Thanks to this extraordinary method, Turing would help to shorten the duration of the world war.
However, we remember Alan Turing also for the machine that bears his name. It is a device containing an infinite and rewritable tape. Here you can ideally write, read and delete symbols as you move back and forth along the same tape. It is in practice the ideal model of a computing machine capable of solving algorthms. Today it is an essential element for those dealing with algorithms and computation theory.
As for his legacy in the field of artificial intelligence, the “Turing test” is also his. It is a particular criterion with which it is possible to determine whether an artificial machine, or a computer, can be considered thinking.
Pioneer, revolutionary, visionary. Alan Turing was all of this. Yet in 1952 the Victorian laws in force forced him to choose between a two-year prison sentence or chemical castration. He chose the latter and for more than a year underwent some hormone treatments that caused deep physical and psychological repercussions. The depression that ensued would be the reason that led to his suicide on June 7, 1954 at only 42 years of age.