Is Alan Turing Both Inventor of the Basic Ideas of the Modern Computer and a Pioneer of Artificial Intelligence?
In 1936, at the age of just 23, Turing invented the fundamental logical principles of the modern computer—almost by accident. A shy, boyish-looking genius, the young Turing had recently been elected a fellow of King’s College, an unusual honor for such a young researcher. King’s College, in the heart of Cambridge, lies a few steps along narrow medieval lanes from Trinity College, where in the seventeenth century Isaac Newton revolutionized our understanding of the universe. King’s College was Turing’s intellectual home, and he remained a fellow there until the early 1950s, when he was a given a specially created Readership in the Theory of Computing at Manchester University, a new position in the new field that Turing was instrumental in creating, computer science.
At King’s, the young Turing worked alone in a spartan room at the top of an ancient stone building beside the River Cam (scarcely more than a narrow stream winding through the old masonry, and a productive source of damp and chill). It was all quite the opposite of a modern research facility—Cambridge’s scholars had been doing their thinking in comfortless stone buildings, reminiscent of cathedrals or monasteries, ever since the university had begun to thrive in the Middle Ages. Turing was engaged in highly abstract work in the foundations of mathematics. No one could have guessed that anything of any practical value would emerge from this research, let alone a machine that would change all our lives.
As everyone who can operate a personal computer knows, the way to make the machine perform the job you want—word-processing, say—is to locate the appropriate program in memory and click on it. That’s the so-called ‘stored program’ concept and it was Turing’s invention in 1936. (This was just on paper—no engineering at this stage.) Turing’s fabulous idea, dreamed up by pure thought, was of a single processor—a single slab of hardware—that, by making use of instructions stored inside its memory, could change itself from a machine dedicated to one specific task into a machine dedicated to a completely different task—from calculator to word-processor to chess opponent, for example. Turing called his invention the ‘universal computing machine’; now we call it simply the universal Turing machine. If Isaac Newton had known about it, he would probably have wished that he had thought of it first. Nowadays, though, when nearly everyone owns a physical realization of Turing’s universal machine, his idea of a one-stop-shop computing machine is apt to seem as obvious as the wheel and the arch. But in 1936, when engineers thought in terms of building different machines for different purposes, Turing’s idea of a single universal machine was revolutionary.