“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” – Alan Turing, 1912-1954
There is no doubt that technology changes rapidly. The original computers required an entire room’s worth of space, the internet used to rely on a wired phone connected, and modern iPhones no longer have a headphone jack. While these advances become more and more complicated, they rely on basic principles of computer science as founded in the 1930’s by Alan Turing. As a mathematician, philosopher, scientist, cryptographer, and war hero, Turing is a revolutionary figure. Despite his countless contributions to the field, Turing was unfortunately not fully recognized during his lifetime as most of his work was classified as confidential, and as he was discriminated for his sexuality.
The Turing Machine
Turing is aptly named “the father of modern computing and artificial intelligence” for his work in laying the foundations of complex technologies that came about long after his death. At the end of his undergraduate degree, he tackled the Entscheidungsproblem which posed the question, “Exactly how much math can be done by simply following algorithms?” In response to this problem, Turing created a code that a machine could read, eventually named the “Turing Machine.” Using the machine’s physical position, it’s rendering of a “1” or “0,” and a subsequent command as an “if, then” statement, the machine could follow any algorithm and answer in a “yes” or “no” if it were possible. For example, if the machine is looking at the 25th data point on a line, and data point #25 is a “1,” then the machine can be programmed to move to position X and change the “1” to a “0,” or another command of that nature. The logic behind this computation still serves as the foundation of all modern computer operations. If it weren’t for this incredible machine that automated all algorithms, the word “computer” would have still referred to the humans who calculated each problem by hand.
He later became a key participant in the code breaking that was required on behalf of the British government during World War II. At the time, Nazi forces had successfully encrypted all of their communications using what was called the “Enigma Code.” The code essentially manipulated letters of the alphabet in new methods every 24 hours, leaving human computers to waste countless hours on a “trial and error” process of decoding messages. Turing is now credited with creating the device that automated the process of decoding these messages, which successfully provided the allies an upper hand when it came to military tactics. When encrypted radio communications came in from German forces, Turing and his team were able to decipher the messages and provide critical intel. Turing’s findings are said to have ended the war a full two years earlier than what was expected.
Despite these massive accomplishments that saved countless hours of time and countless lives during war, Alan Turing was not recognized for these contributions until long after his work ended. It is true that he was a government agent working strictly with confidential data during the war, hence the lack of public recognition, but later his reputation was needlessly tarnished due to judgment of his sexuality. In 1952 he was convicted by UK law enforcement for “gross indecency” after openly admitting to the police that he had had a relationship with another man. For two years, he faced public shaming and was forced to undergo hormone treatments that were thought to suppress homosexual urges, all while continuing his work in theorizing artificial intelligence. As he was truly in the midst of breakthrough philosophies of whether or not human thought can be replicated by a machine, Alan Turing was tragically found dead in 1954 by cyanide poisoning, later ruled as suicide.
Credit Where Credit is Due
While Turing’s legacy was tarnished during his lifetime, many steps have been taken to rightfully reinstate him as a revolutionary figure in the field of computer science. Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Alan Turing in 2013 along with an apology of his mistreatment, and the estate at Bletchley Park where he first cracked the Enigma Code is now a dedicated museum celebrating the efforts him and his team made in ending the war.
It’s hard to imagine, while working on a modern computer or connecting via smartphone, that these technologies are reliant on a school of thought that came about in the early 1930’s. Turing’s groundbreaking approach to computing, automation, and code breaking were invaluable then and are still relevant to this day. His research and publications on code breaking alone were so vital that the UK government did not release them until 2012 — they were still considered as “classified information” before then.
Turing’s foundations are thought to have inspired countless debates and innovations in the field of artificial intelligence as well. Before his death, Turing determined that an accountable “test” for a computer’s ability to “think” is whether or not a bot could be believably perceived as a human; a feat that has been achieved within the last 20 years alone. This “Turing Test” has now been incorporated into modern cybersecurity in the form of “CAPTCHA,” which stands for “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart.” When malicious bot accounts overrun a popular website’s server, a CAPTCHA can thwart these attempts, and Alan Turing rightfully has his name written in this safeguard.
Here at Tetra Defense, we recognize that no one person has all of the answers to the cybersecurity problems we solve in a given day. It takes a village of collaborative and creative teammates to adapt to new challenges and solve new problems. Alan Turing is one of our many heroes that continue to inspire us; his ideas were nothing short of visionary and are still relevant today. In the spirit of Alan Turing, we strive to use his computing and cybersecurity methods for good, all while recognizing the human components in our work every day at Tetra Defense.