According to a famous dictum, history is written by the victors.
Alan Turing has most recently been an icon for the gay community. Rights for homosexual behavior have now been vindicated, and Turing’s mistreatment serves as a rallying point.
But there are other victors. The Anglo-American alliance that beat the Nazis is proud of the code breaker who made their victory possible. (The position of the USSR, the other essential part of the World War II victory, is problematic because the USSR has fallen; that is, they are no longer victors.)
Other victors are computer scientists who have attained a dominant position in our commerce and culture, and who use Turing as an icon of their purity of motives.
Of course, “AIers” (or whatever they’re calling themselves this year--knowledge engineers, data scientists, and so on) adore Turing as their founder. Note that they can claim that he used Bayesian methods to break codes.
Mathematicians and scientists use Turing as an icon of their fight for support and against ignorance. There were pictures of Alan Turing in the recent March for Science.
From the Warholesque cover, you can guess that this is a “pop” book, written to explain Turing and his work to a general audience. In fact, it is a little above popular level; there is some math and detailed explanations of coding machines. This book weighs in at about 500 pages. It contains 42 chapters with 33 authors. The chapters range from papers by recognized historians of computation to firsthand stories from people who were there. Although the book is arranged in sections, threads might be more appropriate.
Biographical aspects of Turing are covered in Section 1 (chapters 1 through 4) and chapters 5, 19, 40, and 42. Most notable here is a reminiscence by Turing’s nephew. What about that Apple? I’m afraid that Steve Jobs denied any connection between their logo and Turing. Well, anyway, we know that Turing died from eating a poisoned apple. Turns out, the apple (found on his nightstand) was never tested for poison.
Code breaking is discussed in some depth (chapters 9 through 18 and 38) For many years, Turing’s role during the war was little understood. It is sort of amazing that British secret services managed for almost 50 years to keep a lid on what he and others had accomplished. At least part of the answer is that with the end of World War II, they were immediately preparing for the next war and the Cold War, so they did not want potential enemies to find out their code-breaking capabilities in hopes that these enemies (and friends) might use some of the codes that had already been broken. It seems possible that some secrets have not yet been revealed. Codes might not have been the only issue; the atom bomb was as big a secret. The book gives some suggestion that on his various wartime trips, Turing may have been in contact with atomic secrets. For the immediately paranoid, this is the explanation of Turing’s death. He was executed by the secret service because he might reveal secrets. Note that the Rosenbergs had just been executed for atomic espionage, and Burgess and Maclean had just defected. That these defectors were part of a university group that consisted mostly of homosexuals may have suggested that homosexuality was enough evidence to indicate treason. Kim Philby can then be explained because he was known to have affairs with women. It must have come as a big shock when he also defected.
Early computers are another central topic (chapters 8, 20, 21, 22, and 24). Of particular note is Turing’s design of the automatic computing engine (ACE). This was a non-von Neumann architecture, which was never built.
Turing’s role as the founder of artificial intelligence (AI) and the propounder of the Turing test is discussed in several chapters (25 through 30). These discussions cover such questions as: What did Turing mean by his test? How have others misused the test?
Of course, the universal Turing machine and its central place in the theory and design of digital computers is discussed (chapters 6, 7, 8, and 37). There is no question about its importance in theory, but there is still controversy about its impact on the design of the first stored-program digital computers.
There are also papers on a smattering of other topics: Turing’s theory of morphogenesis (chapters 33, 34, and 35); some of Turing’s mathematical calculations (chapter 36)--did you know that he did the first numerical analysis of matrix inversion?; learning machines and connectionism (chapters 29 and 30); chess programs (chapter 31); computer music (chapter 23); randomness (chapter 39); “Is the Whole Universe a Computer?” (chapter 41); and perhaps most strangely, “Turing and the Paranormal” (chapter 32).
Overall, if you are a fan of Turing or have a serious interest in the history of computing, you should get this book.
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