Google’s Great-Grandfather

If you are the kind of person (i.e. me) who delights in “Google Doodles”—the quirky and creative designs on the Google search page proclaiming what we should celebrate on that given day—you will have noticed that today’s doodle features some sort of computer-like machine that I figured was a puzzle (it was). Curious, I clicked on the image, and it informed me that today, June 23rd 2012, was Alan Turing’s 100th birthday.

Don’t know who Alan Turing is? Well first, if you’re reading this from a computer, know that you should be thanking him for the ability to do that.

Widely regarded as the father of computer science artificial intelligence, Turing was a British mathematician and cryptanalyst. During World War II, Turing worked for a British code-breaking organization and cracked German naval codes, most notably the Enigma.

After the war, Turing began work on an “Automatic Computing Engine.” Although that specific design was never built, his research in the field and innovative ideas led to the birth of other early computers. Additionally, it was around this time that Turing began considering the idea of a machine’s “artificial intelligence.” He developed an experiment—known as Turing test”—to define this “intelligence.” Basically, a machine was “intelligent” a human in a blind interrogation could not identify the computer as just a machine. Turing personally believed that no computer could “think” per se, and that any “intelligence” attributed to it was a product of its skill at imitation.

Alan Turing was a brilliant and well-respected scientist who saved lives with his work in the war—but that sadly didn’t protect him from being tried and convicted of “gross indecency” by the British government in 1952. A bill passed in 1885 made homosexual illegal in England, and when it was discovered that Turing was gay, he was given a choice: prison, or chemical castration. Opting for chemical castration, Turing received injections of the oestrogen hormones during the course of a year. While chemical castration is designed to reduce libido and sexual desires and is not actually a form of sterilization, it is highly ethically debatable as a form of punishment due to side effects, and is commonly viewed as a form of cruel and unusual punishment today.

After his conviction, Alan Turing was stripped of his security clearance and banned from continuing his cryptology work with the government. Just two years later, he would be found dead in his room by the cleaner, a half-eaten apple by his side. The cause of death was ruled as cyanide poisoning. While it’s commonly viewed that Turing chose to commit suicide with a cyanide-laced apple, recent inquiries into his death are now calling this into question.

Regardless of the manner of his death, the world lost an amazing man that day. Who knows where technology would be now if Turing had been able to continue his research?

Even today, we still encounter a reversed form of the Turing test very often in regular use of the Internet. If you’ve ever tried to buy something/access secure information online, you’ve probably run into CAPTCHA: “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.”

Aka, those squiggly, distorted letters you have to name correctly to get to the page you want (I sincerely hope I’m not the only person who has difficulty with these).

So thank you, Alan Turing. Even though I hate reading those damn squiggly letters, I sure love my computer. And buying things online.




(That means “rest in peace” in binary! Yes, I found a binary translator online… I know, I’m such a cool kid)