Before the world would begin developing artificial intelligence, Alan Turing was asking the question, “Can machines think?” In 1936, this became his idea for the development of the “The Turing Test” or “Universal Turing Machine”, a machine that could be programmed to perform a series of tasks.
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.’
The BBC is marking what would have been his 100th birthday this Saturday with a series of articles about his life. Well, the technology part of his life. Oddly enough (or maybe not so oddly), nothing is being said about why he “tragically died” (as one of the articles states - he committed suicide) or the persecution by the British Government for being a homosexual, effectively ending his life. In fact, in all those articles, he is only referred to as “a gay/cultural icon” and nothing else.
In the beginning, It was his work with computing and his genius, that caught the attention of the British government. They put him to work as a codebreaker, deciphering and breaking coded messages from the Nazis which was imperative to winning the war.
After the war, he want back to developing his ideas on what would eventually become artificial intelligence. However, Alan Turing was also gay and homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time, an arrestable offense.
It came to be that Turing was burglarized and he suspected a young man he had taken home one evening. He reported the robbery to the police and by that report, they realized Turing was gay. Instead of treating him as the National Hero that he was, he was arrested. He plead guilty to an indecency offense and was offered two choices. Prison or chemical castration. To avoid the scandal and loss of his reputation, he opted for chemical castration.
He was to take diethylstilbestrol which lowers testosterone and raises the estrogen levels in the system. It also prevents erection, shrinks the testes and eventually, you grow breasts. However, since your hormones are also tied to your brain function, Turing’s thinking started to become muddled. He couldn’t concentrate on anything and his ability to do any of his work stopped. His brilliant mind was gone.
He took his life by cyanide poisoning on June 7, 1954, two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. Lost to us forever.
I had the pleasure of seeing a 50 minute, condensed screening of his documentary last Tuesday which I believe is coming out shortly. It tells the story of his work, the people he loved and inspired him and his sad, tragic end. turingfilm.com
UPDATE: I came across this article in the Daily Beast by his brother, John Turing. Gives more interesting insight.