Alan Turing was a code breaker, a mathematician, a pioneer in computer science, and the father of artificial intelligence. His idea for a theoretical Universal Turing Machine, a device capable of reading, storing, and writing an infinity of data, is the basis of the CPU, and the precursor to nearly every modern computer. But he imagined even further.
“I propose to consider the question,” he wrote, “‘Can machines think?’”
He seemed certain one day they would. The Turing Test is his attempt to answer that philosophical question with searing simplicity. If people can no longer tell whether they are speaking to a human or to a machine, does that mean the machine has learned to imitate human thoughts? It’s a question we’re still attempting to answer.
Turing’s visionary theories have led to practical results. An expert cryptographer, he led the team that cracked the Nazi’s notorious Enigma code and designed the Bombe, a decryption device that helped the Allies win the war. He would go on to design the Automatic Computing Engine, the fastest computer of its time, utilizing one of the earliest programming language. Turing even wrote world’s first chess program.
He was also an openly gay man at a time when England considered being gay a crime.
And they convicted him for it. In 1952, Turing was given the choice between a prison sentence and chemical castration. He agreed to undergo experimental hormone treatments, with traumatic physical and mental effects. The British government decided he now proved a security risk and revoked his clearance, keeping him under constant surveillance. Two years after his conviction, Alan Turing took his own life.