We are right in the middle of the Shiny-Tech Information Age. And if there is one person we can thank, the credit goes to the legendary Alan Turing – the father of computing. I don’t use the word legendary lightly. Turing’s first claim to fame was during the height of World War II when he saved millions of lives by breaking German ciphers. He was the first to hack the enigmatic Enigma machine. His second achievement was to invent the concept of a modern computer, rightfully earning him the title of father of computing. His third (wow, he didn’t retire after becoming the ‘father’ of a field?) was to father another field: artificial intelligence. Not content with launching two whole disciplines which would dominate the better half of the 20th century, he spawned another: bioinformatics.
Turing is arguably and commonly accepted as the father of three whole fields: computation, artificial intelligence, and bioinformatics:
1. Computing – The Turing Machine: Turing drew on the work of brilliant mathematicians David Hilbert (of Hilbert Space in Quantum Mechanics fame) and Kurt Godel (of the namesake incompleteness theorem and popular book ‘Godel-Escher-Bach ‘ fame) to lay the framework for a model of computation called the Turing Machine, which would become (and remains) the model of computation. The Turing model was intended to answer questions on effective calculability and formal derivability: i.e., does mathematics put any fundamental restrictions on what kinds of problems can we solve? Turing answered the question beautifully (as did the Church btw, but not-so beautifully) by coming up with the idea of a Universal Computing Machine, one that is provably capable of computing anything that is computable (link to the original paper). The concept of the modern computer was born that day.
2. Artificial Intelligence – The Turing Test: Shortly after Turing’s theory of computation, mathematics, logic, and computing were bustling with activity. In the 50’s, a group of researchers were inspired to seriously consider the possibility of an electronic brain. The defining question – one that continues to set the beat – of AI is whether the central property of humans, intelligence—the sapience of Homo sapiens— can be so precisely described that it can be simulated by a machine. Turing’s answered with an experiment: if a human interrogating the machine cannot tell whether the answers are from a human or a machine, the machine is deemed intelligent. Brilliantly simple. Incredibly easy to test. Called the Turing test (original paper here), this is now standard protocol for a machine to be called “intelligent”. If this sounds familiar, its because of the CAPTCHA texts over the net, designed to test if you are a machine.
Of course, Turing went a step further (sensing a pattern here?). He proposed that instead of trying to simulate an adult brain, we might have an easier time starting with a much simpler model – a child’s brain – and then educating the machine. Holy mother of all – this, my friends, is Machine Learning, another sub field of AI, with applications in object recognition, natural language processing, search engines, and many more. As a sidenote, machine learning software startup Vicarious Systems (Founder’s Fund) recently claimed that its algorithms cracked CAPTCHA. Computer scientists are not yet too jolted by its claim, since apparently they get a few every year. And the hack to solving CAPTCHA’s? Direct them to a porn site.
3. Bioinformatics – Turing’s Pattern Hypothesis: Being a quantum infomation technician, I was aware of Turing’s achievement in the two fields above. This last one, though, blew my mind. Turing – did he just go on a roaring rampage of problem solving? – decided to shed his intelligence on morphogenesis, i.e., the subfield of biology which studies how organisms develop their shapes. In the Chemical Basis of Morphogensis, Turing describes his hypothesis of pattern formation, e.g., how a leopard’s spots form. Perhaps a bit longer, and he could have also explained, nay modeled, why a leopard can’t change its spots!
In my quest to learn everything that I can possibly can, I have met, worked with, and read about a lot of incredibly smart men and women. But this level of genius does not come often. What was it about the early 20th century that revolutionized every scientific field? There is: physics (quantum mechanics), mathematics (formalizing algebra), computer science (in the early 1930’s ‘computers’ referred to humans) , biology (DNA & genetics), etc.
Now for the kicker. Turing did all this before his untimely and extremely tragic death at age 41! 41. What the world would have seen if not for The British Govt, who had the decency to put out an official apology for their huge part in his death. Turing is thought to have committed suicide via a deathly bite into a cyanide poisoned apple. Some say the symbolism was due to his fascination with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The half-eaten Apple logo would have been a great homage to a computing legend – but it is not the case, even though Steve Jobs, a huge Turing fan, has publicly wished that that was the genesis behind Apple’s logo.