The United Kingdom has finally pardoned Alan Turing for a gay sex conviction which tarnished the brilliant career of the code breaker credited with helping win the war against Nazi Germany and laying the foundation for the computer age.
Turing’s contributions to science spanned from computer science to biology, but he’s perhaps best remembered as the architect of the effort to crack the Enigma code, the cipher used by Nazi Germany to secure its military communications. Turing’s groundbreaking work – combined with the effort of cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park near Oxford and the capture of several Nazi code books – gave the Allies the edge across half the globe, helping them defeat the Italians in the Mediterranean, beat back the Germans in Africa and escape enemy submarines in the Atlantic.
“It could be argued and it has been argued that he shortened the war, and that possibly without him the Allies might not have won the war,” said David Leavitt, the author of a book on Turing’s life and work. “That’s highly speculative, but I don’t think his contribution can be underestimated. It was immense.”
Turing also pioneered the field of computer science, theorizing the existence of a “universal machine” that could be programmed to carry out different task years before the creation of the world’s fully functional electronic computer. Turing ideas matured into a fascination with artificial intelligence and the notion that machines would someday challenge the minds of man. When the war ended, Turing went to work programing the world’s early computers, drawing up – among other things – one of the first computer chess games.
When this author took his first computer science class in the Fall of 1966, the instructor described "the Turing machine" - a hypothetical device that manipulates symbols on a strip of tape according to a table of rules. It was invented in 1936 by Alan Turing and used to help computer scientists understand the limits of mechanical computation. In particular, the Turing machine gave rise to the concepts of "algorithm" and "computation" within the model of a general purpose computer (stored program machine).
Turing is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. His pardon was long overdue!