October 11, 2018
Writer: IT Communications Writer
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
If anyone can speak truly about the impact of unique and individual contributions, it's Alan Turing. At the young age of 27 years old, Turing started his journey toward decoding the Enigma Machine at Bletchley Park. His work attributed to shortening the war by two years and saving approximately 21 million lives, but he didn’t stop there. In fact, Turing’s work spans across 80 years of expanding technology and continues to influence our perspective on advancements such as the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI). Though his ideas at the time bordered on science fiction, Turing persevered and used his ideas to help advance technology throughout the 20th century. The impacts he had as a mathematician and computer science innovator changed and will continue to change the world.
Turing, a cryptographer, worked with British Intelligence to decode the Enigma Machine during World War II. Although, the Enigma Machine looked like a typewriter, it was incredibly complex. At the time, it had over 10^144 possible permutations. Nazi Germany used the Enigma Machine to send coded messages, and it was impossible to crack the codes because the Axis Powers constantly found ways to perfect and improve its codes.
Turing knew that it would be possible to crack the Enigma if he had access to adequate resources. Bletchley Park requested additional resources. The response? “Impossible.” For some time, the cryptographers tried to break the code using the same basic calculations. It wasn’t enough—by the time they cracked the message, it was too late, and the message was already carried out. Bletchley Park desperately needed technological assistance to run the calculations.
In every aspect of his life, Turing had a difficult time accepting “impossible” as an answer. When Turing encountered the issue of a maladjusted bike chain, he persisted in solving the problem. Others would have bought a new bike, but Turing knew the solution could be found – he only needed the time and resources to find it. Turing mathematically analyzed the issue: the bike chain was missing a tooth for one of the gears. With this information, he calculated the exact number of pedal rotations before the chain would fall off. Once he understood the number, he created a formula to fix the pedaling issue. This process took him months of research, but eventually he formulated the correct algorithm for pedaling, and he rode his bike without any qualms.
In the case of the Enigma Machine resources, others would have kept trying to break the code without success. However, Turing took matters into his own hands and contacted the British Prime Minister: Winston Churchill. Turing briefly met Churchill one month before, and he still wrote the Prime Minister to explain his department’s situation and needs. Churchill granted the request and informed his staff officer to “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.”
Turing fixed the problem, and it resulted in the resources needed to improve upon the Polish Bomba Enigma Deciphering Machine. These improvements helped the deciphering machine work faster than the original. Turing called this deciphering machine “Bombe.” This electro-mechanical device deciphered the encrypted messages of the Nazi Germans and by all accounts, it helped end the war two years early. Turing’s machine saved over 21 million lives in the war that took 60 million lives.
Turing was a pioneer in computer science. He used mathematics to change computing machines and built upon ideas that were established. His persistence in the face of potential failure helped him envision a future for AI, where computers evolved to be intelligent enough to imitate human logic. Today, we can see Turing’s imagination bloom into reality with technology like Google Assistant Duplex, which has the human-like program that called businesses to make reservations and appointments.
We live in an era where Turing’s hypothesis about AI has real potential. His ideas always sought for possibilities in the future, rather than the improbabilities. His life reflected human complexities, and the exhibition of bold, persistent courage in the face of adversity. At some point, he was just a 27-year-old codebreaker, but today, Alan Turing is a hero and father of theoretical computer science.