The Brilliance of Alan Turing

June 2012

Alan Turing is an example of UK-based thinking that made this country great, but many did not understand his brilliance. Dr Mike Lynch OBE on why we need to set the right educational ecosystem so as not to fail the next generation.

When Autonomy, my software company, went public, the city types wanted to see a traditional Chairman rather than deal with these young precocious geeks that had created the software. A suitable pillar of the establishment, a lawyer who was a QC, was recruited.

One day, when touring our research lab a young and typically fearless programmer walked up and said to the Chairman, "so what do you think you know about software, how are you qualified for this job?". At that point the Chairman replied "I was once baby sat by Alan Turing". A wave of respect descended over the software lab and there was never a reason to question his credentials again. Such is the legendary status of Alan Turing.

It is an achievement in life to have been credited with changing the course of history once in a lifetime but to have done it twice in a short lifetime is truly exceptional.

Turing's work not only had significant impact on the defeat of Nazism through his Enigma code-breaking, but his mathematical work is the basis of modern computing. The modern world of ipads, facebook , mobile phones are all based on his ideas. His work is still the basis for much of the more fundamental research in artificial intelligence.

Sixty years on from Turing famously opening his paper on Computing Machinery and Intelligence asking if machines can think, the idea of intelligent computers seems a little less ridiculous. Technology has leaped forward year by year with ever greater processing powers, faster internet connections, sleeker interfaces and cleverer self-learning algorithms. We are close to computers being able to make value judgements, understand concepts and process the world in the same way as humans.

Turing was well ahead of his time and he is an example of UK-based thinking that has made this country great in the past and in the present. We gave birth to the industrial revolution — and today British companies are some of the most recognised and iconic in the world. From Rolls-Royce engines that power aircraft around the globe to ARM chips that power smartphones or universities that produce outstanding graduates and researchers, Britain is very much a player on the global stage, punching above our weight in many fields.

But just as Turing's generation was unable to fully understand and accept his brilliance, we today must not fail the future golden talent that could revolutionise our technology industry and change the world as a result. We can encourage a love of technology at an early age and promote an ICT education system that develops analytical minds that learn to create stuff and make things work using technology, largely through trial and error.

It is young people who are adapting the quickest of all to new technologies and, crucially, the practices they facilitate. They tweet, download apps and buy online with astonishing agility and speed. Government policy needs to give ICT teachers the freedom to move away from programme-based lessons and give them chance to show pupils the real magic of technology - of the power it has to create, improve and entertain. The UK has a wealth of untapped talent, but to grow the Turings of the future, we need to set the right educational ecosystem to allow young people to question our technological landscape, not just live in it. Society's narrow-mindedness failed Turing – we must not fail today's students with limited school curricula.

One evening I was discussing Alan Turing with our lawyer Chairman and he produced something deeply poignant from his pocket. His father, a Manchester solicitor, had defended Turing at this trial and his family had received a letter from Turing's mother shortly after his death. So sad to read, it was a thread through time recounting so unnecessary a death. The harassment he suffered over his sexuality, generally credited as the cause of his death, is hopefully now an anachronism.

The loss due to him committing suicide using a cyanide-laced apple is perhaps a strong indicator of the price we can pay for our intolerances. His life led to many advances that have improved the lot of humanity, from modern media to healthcare. Perhaps if he had lived in a more tolerant age he would have continued to produce yet more benefits for mankind.

A biography published by the Royal Society shortly after Turing's death (and while his wartime work was still subject to the Official Secrets Act) stated:

'Three remarkable papers written just before the war, on three diverse mathematical subjects, show the quality of the work that might have been produced if he had settled down to work on some big problem at that critical time'

So next time you see the Snow White movie's poison apple scene rendered on a digital device spare a thought for the man who changed history forever and made that possible.