Alan Turing: Code-breaker
By Ian Williams, team leader for Service Design and Transition in IT Shared Services, Close Brothers Group
Several years ago, I saw an exhibition called ‘Codebreaker’ in the Science Museum in London and it was on the life of Alan Turing.
I didn’t know that much about him, but I was greatly moved by how his incredible accomplishments and contributions to society and science were shadowed by societal discrimination at the time. We can’t take back what was done to Alan Turing in what were very different social and legal circumstances, but we can continue to shine a light on individuals, as a tiny gesture to celebrate these achievements and acknowledge the ground-breaking contributions that were made to our society.
“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” (Alan Turing quote from in his paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ in 1950).
Alan Turing was a mathematician and cryptologist who is often considered to be the pioneer of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. In primary and secondary schools, he was frequently called a ‘genius’ by his teachers. Later he went on to study at King's College, University of Cambridge graduating in 1934 with a first-class honour’s degree in mathematics. After Cambridge he continued his studies at Princeton University, New Jersey, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1938. During his time here, he developed the notion of a ‘universal computing machine’ which could solve complex calculations. This would become known as the Turing machine, which foreshadowed the digital computer.
In 1939, Turing was asked to join the Government Codes and Cypher School, a British code-breaking organisation (now GCHQ), which was moved to Bletchley Park when war was declared on 3 September. Turing’s most famous achievement at Bletchley was cracking the ‘Enigma’ code. The Enigma was an enciphering machine used by the German armed forces to send messages securely. Together with fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman, Turing developed the Bombe, a machine based on an earlier Polish design, which from late 1940 was decoding all messages sent by the Enigma machines.
Turing’s life was tragically affected by the societal norms of his time: despite the part he played in ensuring the safety of the nation and how that contributed to saving countless lives, he was considered a ‘security risk’ because of his sexuality and was harassed by police surveillance up until his untimely death, by suicide, in 1954.
It was only after his death that Turing’s work came fully to light. His impact on computer science is commemorated in the annual ‘Turing Award’ – the highest accolade in the industry. Meanwhile, his code-breaking operations at Bletchley Park are credited with shortening the war by as much as two years– saving countless lives in the process.
In 2015 a new national centre for research in data science and AI, The Alan Turing Institute, was created in his name.
An apology was issued to Turing in 2009 by the British Government:
“On behalf of . . . all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”