As I write, I am preparing to attend an exhibition that celebrates the life and work of Alan Turing at London’s Science Museum.
For a mathematician like me, it is hard to put too fine a point on this: Alan Turing changed the course of history not once, but twice in a very short lifetime.
Turing’s work not only had significant impact on the defeat of Nazism through his Enigma code-breaking, but his mathematical work is the basis of modern computing.
The modern world of iPads, Facebook and mobile phones are all based on his ideas.
His work is still the basis for much of the more fundamental research in artificial intelligence. But, like many geniuses, from Jesus to Van Gogh, he didn’t enjoy this degree of recognition in his lifetime.
While Turing’s work on computing might form the basis of modern technology, his personal life, and more importantly, society’s inability to accept his eccentricities, gives as much food for thought at this time as a pondering on the limits of Artificial Intelligence.
I have my own Turing anecdote: when I took my software company, Autonomy, public, the City wanted to see a traditional Chairman rather than the geeks that had created the software.
Eventually, we managed to recruit a suitable pillar of the establishment: a lawyer who was a QC.
One day, when touring our research lab, a young and typically fearless programmer walked up and said to the Chairman,
“So what do you think you know about software? How are you qualified for this job?”
At that point the Chairman replied, “I was once babysat by Alan Turing”.
A wave of respect descended over the software lab and there was never a reason to question his credentials again.
Such is the legendary status of Alan Turing.
One evening I was discussing Alan Turing with our lawyer Chairman and he produced something deeply poignant from his pocket.
His father, a Manchester solicitor, had defended Turing at a trial and his family had received a letter from Turing’s mother shortly after his death.
So sad to read, it was a thread through time recounting so unnecessary a death.
The loss due to him committing suicide using a cyanide-laced apple is perhaps a strong indicator of the price we can pay for our intolerances.
I would like to think that the harassment he suffered over his sexuality, generally credited as the cause of his death, is now an anachronism.
And yet, we still run the risk of failing the current generation of Turing’s by being narrow-minded in different ways.