Sunday, January 16, 2011

20th Century 20 - 3

Last year Gordon Brown made the following apology:

“So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.”

Alan was not a spy, or a war hero of the conventional sense: Alan Turing was a codebreaker.

The reason for the apology? Turing was arrested and chemically castrated for being gay.

Besides his cryptographic brilliance, which got through Germany's WWII Enigma machine, Turing will be immortalized for his machines.

Turing machines were grounded in the heady stuff of formal symbolic logic and Turing's work on Kurt Gödel's theories. The basic concept is that you set the machine to recognize a specific symbol, from a finite set. The machine uses an algorithm to do this.

It's a computer.

The basis for all computer language, programming, and functioning has its roots in Turing's machines. We tend, nowadays, to make fun of the old computers: vast room sized, hot computational boxes. But even these primitives, like ENIAC, could solve in two hours what it would take a hundred humans one year to calculate.

When the internet arrived some, who obviously didn't study history, thought our lives would become more leisured. Of course the result was speeding things up: making deadlines shorter still. But this simple, now vital process, began with Turing.

No comments: