Alan Turing: His Mind, His Life (VIDEO, Part One)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of mathematician and logician Alan Turing's birth. I had the honor to discuss his legacy with some of the most influential computer scientists in the world at the Association for Computing Machinery's 2012 Turing Award celebration.

In Part 1 of a two-part series, listen as Frances Allen, Charles Bachman, Vint Cerf, Dame Wendy Hall, William Newman, Christos Papadimitriou and Judea Pearl celebrate the mind of Alan Turing, the father of computer science.

Click the link below and/or watch the video above. And, please join us on Wednesday, July 11, for Part 2 of "Alan Turing: His Mind, His Life."

Talk nerdy to me by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page.

WENDY HALL: He was a prodigy. I mean, he got his degree very early, became a fellow at King's College, Cambridge very early, and had a remarkable brain. And the insight, you know, he's a true--I think--a true genius.

CHRISTOS PAPADIMITRIOU: I think that Turing is one of the greatest persons who ever lived, and I don't mean scientists.

FRANCES ALLEN: He was one of the most insightful and brilliant people.

CHARLES BACHMAN: He made tremendous contributions to the British war effort, and also, indirectly to the American war effort.

JUDEA PEARL: ... he understood the call of the hour.

CP: In human history, I think there are very few good guys who affected history more dramatically than Alan Turing.

VINT CERF: I think the most important thing about Turing, though, is to recognize the incredible breadth of his thinking and the depth of his ability to start from first principles to reason his way to some conclusion.

WH: Well, I think he's somebody that was just a brilliant brain, and could help define new fields in whichever area he went into.

CB: As a very young child he was very precocious in some of the things he did mathematically and designing experiments, but he was not a very social young boy.

FA: Probably a loner.

WH: But by all accounts he was quite a difficult person, like a lot of geeks are, you know.

FA: Pretty widely acknowledged that he gave his mother a very hard time. You know, he was not an easy person.

WH: But there's plenty of people who would call him a friend and he obviously had a rich social life.

CB: Some children kind of do things by themselves and others do things in groups. He was kind of a solitary child in the early years and only developed later, through his activities, some social skills.

VC: My favorite story is the one where a young man who knew him as a boy was describing that he was awakened one morning by somebody pounding on the door, and when he opened the door it's Alan Turing, who, by the way, was well known for running. I mean, he was a distance runner.

CB: In a time when he was working at Bletchley Park, which was about 40 miles from London, and he had a business meeting at the National Physical Laboratory in London, he would run to town for the meeting and he would run back.

VC: So dressed in his running shorts, he's holding a leaf from a Rhododendron, and he didn't have any paper and he wanted to leave them with an invitation to come to a party. And so he was writing on the Rhododendron leaf. And I thought, 'there's nothing more wonderful about that story than the ability of Alan Turing to take advantage of anything, you know, that would come to hand in order to do what he was doing.'

CP: By all accounts, he was probably a very central figure in the brilliant cryptanalytic effort of the British counterintelligence.

CB: His best-known contributions are those he handled working on the British Intelligence Service during World War II, when they built the machines to help decode the German Enigma code.

VC: The machine that Turing designed actually emulated the way the Enigmas worked. They used four rotors that would turn in various ways depending on what was typed on a typewriter.

CP: By creating his special-purpose computers so that they broke German codes, apparently he played a major role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

CB: And that part of his work is very practical. He took his theory and turned it into things.

VC: So what they would do is build this giant machine that pretended like it was literally many, many of these encryptors, in order to set them all at slightly different positions in the keying space, in order to see whether one of them would break the code and translate it.

WH: It can be argued that the team at Bletchley Park saved on the order of 20 million lives, because they managed to stop the U-boats, and it really quickened the end of the war.

WILLIAM NEWMAN: His work made a huge difference to the outcome of the war and certainly to the duration of the war.

JP: Many people attribute to him shortening the war by six months. I think it was more than that.

VC: So his design was extremely practical and, at the time, one of the most interesting examples of parallel computing that you would find.

JP: It's really amazing.

Video produced by Christopher Sprinkle and Cara Santa Maria. Shot by Roddy Blelloch. Special thanks to Virginia Gold and the Association for Computing Machinery.

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