Alan Turing’s Story

[ Andrew Hodges has written a more detailed summary of Turing’s life. Read More. ]

Alan Turing was a complicated and eccentric genius – a man ahead of his time. In the 1930s, this British mathematician envisioned a digital world few others could imagine. During World War II, he broke the German naval Enigma code and helped Britain defeat the Nazis. As the father of computer science and a leading theorist of artificial intelligence, today Turing is considered one of the 20th century’s most important people. He never saw the world he helped create: instead, after being persecuted for his homosexuality by the government he helped save, Turing took his own life in 1954.

Codebreaker, a feature-length drama documentary, examines Turing’s extraordinary life, tragic death, and enduring legacy. Despite Turing’s role in shaping our modern world, most people don’t know his story. This film will help change that fact.

Turing was different; even at an early age. He had different intellectual interests. His high pitched stammer sounded different. His unwillingness to take the expected path was different. Five years in a British public boarding school did not transform him into the conformist that his teachers and parents wanted. Instead, he was fascinated by science and mathematics – fields in which he quickly made a lasting impact.

After graduating from King’s College, Cambridge,  he published an academic paper in 1936, On Computable Numbers, in which he made a name for himself by disproving a critical mathematical theory. He did so, in part, by introducing to the world an idea he called the Universal Turing Machine – a device that could perform any mathematical problem by reducing the problem to numbers that could be calculated. The Universal Turing Machine was far ahead of its time, as it would be many years before it could be engineered into reality. However, his idea for a machine (hardware) that could be programmed (software) to perform different tasks essentially describes every digital computer in existence today. His 1936 paper forms the cornerstone of the modern digital age.

Turing biographer Andrew Hodges describes the idea’s significance in this way:

“It is now almost impossible to read Turing’s 1936 work without thinking of a Turing machine as a computer program, and the Universal Turing Machine as the computer on which different programs can be run. We are now so familiar with the idea of the computer as a fixed piece of hardware, requiring only fresh software to make it do entirely different things, that it is hard to imagine the world without it. It was also essential to Turing’s 1936 work that a Turing machine could be thought of as data to be read and manipulated by another Turing machine — this is the principle of the modifiable stored program on which all computing now depends.”

While the machine he envisioned was still decades away, the British government quickly noticed his brilliance. That’s how Turing ended up at Bletchley Park when war broke out with Germany in 1939, along with some of the smartest people of the time. The geniuses at Bletchley Park faced the seemingly impossible task of breaking the Enigma code, which Germany used to encrypt its top-secret military communications. The code breakers succeeded; with Turing playing a lead role. Historians credit Turing’s team with giving the Allies a critical tool to win the Battle of the Atlantic, which was pivotal in defeating Germany. Winston Churchill described the code breakers as, “the geese who laid the golden eggs and never cackled.”

After the War, Turing helped develop two of the first modern computers. He also developed his theories about artificial intelligence. He faced great skepticism when he spoke of machines which would one day be intelligent. As computers have evolved and become increasingly powerful over the intervening decades, Turing’s 1950 paper,  Computing Machinery and Intelligence has become a cornerstone paper in the field of artificial intelligence. In it he describes an imitation test that is a proxy for machine intelligence, which has since become known as the Turing Test, and as yet has not been passed.

Turing HouseTuring’s life started coming apart, however, in early 1952. After investigating a burglary at his home, police eventually learned that Turing had a homosexual relationship with a 19 year-old man. Police arrested Turing and charged him using the same statute that had brought down Oscar Wilde in 1895. After Turing pled guilty in an effort to minimize damage to his career, the judge offered him a choice: spend one year behind bars or endure an experimental hormone treatment to “fix” his sexual orientation. Alan chose what amounted to chemical castration, which, among other things, caused him to grow breasts. A year later, he committed suicide by taking a lethal dose of cyanide. An apple was left by his bedside. The 20th century had lost one its smartest people.

It took decades for Turing to receive the respect in death that he never received in life. In 2009, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered an apology for the government’s treatment of Turing.  Brown’s apology came after 30,000 British citizens signed an on-line petition – resulting in media interest and high profile support from public figures such as Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins.  Turing’s professional legacy also grows stronger – a legacy most clearly seen in the digital age Turing’s mind helped create.

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