First, I’d like to apologize for taking so long between posts. I hope it won’t be a pattern. That said, today I feel compelled to end that hiatus and pay tribute to a great man. A person who made an enormous impact on each of our lives, and the majority of the population barely knows his name. The total sum of his contributions is still being assessed nearly seventy years later. In fact, the very device you’re reading this on was an early generation of his creation. Often thought of as the pioneer of computing, he is even credited today with our first tangible understanding of Artificial Intelligence. Here we are, seven decades later and we are just seeing this technology in its infancy with a joint venture between DeepMind and Google demonstrating how a computer can learn to play Atari on its own.
This intellectual pioneer is named Alan Turing, and today would be his birthday. And while he wouldn’t have lived long enough to see the progress of today, he would certainly have lived longer than he did had he not committed suicide, but more on that later. You might be saying to yourself, big deal… the guy was a brilliant geek who helped invent the computer and had some foresight into where technology would go. So what? Let’s put it into context. Steve Jobs once said that Apple was here to put a dent in the universe. How did he and his multi billion dollar company compare to the achievements of Turing? And how were each of these individuals recognized for their accomplishments?
For starters, Turing’s most impactful contribution was not the personal computer. As important as this was, it pales in comparison to the millions of lives he saved and the impact he made on the face of the globe today. In World War II, the Germans had an encryption device called the Enigma. In conjunction with their state of the art submarine technology (U-Boats), the Germans sunk over 100 ships off the coast of North America in the first 3 months of 1942 and only lost 11 subs in the process. By using this highly complex encryption, the Germans were able to send their subs undetected within a few hundred yards of American soil. Allied ships were sitting ducks, and not just warships, civilian ships.
By the end of 1943, thanks to the creation of the Bombe device built by Turing and his team of British cryptographers, the Germans lost 239 U-Boats in a single year. Being a sailor on a German U-Boat became a suicide mission in just over a year. The work of Turing and his team, literally turned the tide of the war in the Atlantic. Many historians still speculate that if we did not decipher this code when we did, the Allied forces would have lost the Atlantic and possibly the war. At a minimum, most historians agree that this contribution alone brought the war to conclusion two years faster than it would have without the decryption capability. Estimated loss of additional lives exceed two million. Yet, most barely know his name, and we think of Steve Jobs as someone who changed the world for putting “a thousand songs in your pocket.”
So why am I telling you all of this? Other than to pay homage to a good man that is often unspoken of today? Well, his lifestyle is quite relevant in current affairs. You see, Turing was gay and in 1952 he was prosecuted for “homosexual activity” by the British government. He was given a choice, prison or chemical castration. He chose the latter, and two short years later he took a lethal dose of cyanide and killed himself. He didn’t even reach his 42nd birthday. Assuming this man had another 30 years to live, could you imagine how much more he could have contributed? Just a few years ago, Queen Elizabeth issued a posthumous pardon to Turing and apologized for the shameful manner in which he was treated. While that might have come too late for him, I’d like to hope that humanity can evolve to honor the talents of our brightest minds irrespective of whom they choose to love, or how they “identify as.”
The next time you’re talking with a family member or friend who is trying to educate you on why homosexuality is a sin, or some form of perversion, tell them about Alan Turing. Ask them how a person could even conceive of such a great man being influenced by Satan. Ask them to tell you why this person who saved millions of lives should burn in Hell for eternity because some old book that teaches the proper way to beat a slave says so. But before you let them answer, ask them to do so in German. After all, without Turing, there is a decent possibility that is the language they’d be speaking today. Happy birthday Alan.