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Turing's Machines

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Alan Turing's mental leaps about machines and computers were some of the most innovative ideas of the 20th century. But the world wasn't kind to him. Turing was a math genius, a hero of World War II, and is widely considered to be the father of artificial intelligence. But in 1952, he was arrested and convicted under a British law that prohibited "acts of gross indecency between men, in public or private." Leading Robert to wonder how Turing's personal life shaped his understanding of mechanical minds and human emotions.

Read more:

Janna Levin, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer

James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood


James Gleick, David Leavitt and Janna Levin

Comments [13]

DM from Vancouver

I remember learning about Turing during my Computer Science degree. Such an amazing and heartbreakingly tragic story.

Feb. 10 2016 01:51 PM
M from Delaware

First let me say I have no f'ing problem with the f word and I hate to sound like a tattle tale but isn't there an "f-bomb" at around 2:27? "didn't know what the f..."
Just made me laugh a bit that's all.

Feb. 08 2016 03:33 PM
Positivist Nullifidian from San Francisco

Toward the middle of this piece, Turing is credited with being the first to consider humans as machines. This is not, in fact, the case. To name one precedent, the great 19th century orator, Robert Green Ingersoll--a man heard by more Americans than any other individual of his time--when contemplating the process by which energy acts on matter, observed:

"Man is a machine into which we put what we call food, and produce what we call thought. Think of that wonderful chemistry by which bread was changed into the divine tragedy of Hamlet!"
The Gods, 1872

Feb. 07 2016 12:15 PM
John Bendel from Island Heights, N.H.

So Alan Turing's work shortened the war by two years. Hmmm. Didn't the work of William Stephenson, the famous Man Called Intrepid, cut two or three years off the war? Surely Wild Bill Donovan's OSS shaved another six months or so. Golly, without these intelligence folks the war might have gone on into the Kennedy administration.

Feb. 06 2016 09:10 PM

The stupidly, tragically flawed reasoning of the Crown government not to pardon Alan Turing only indicates that a lot of people in the government never learned their school years' lessons from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice." Effing bastards still want their pound of flesh as well as the blood. God save the Queen for her sensibly issuing a royal pardon. Now, she should take the unique step of issuing a posthumous knighthood to make the requisite ceremonial rehabilitation of the reputation of one of the world's greatest persons complete.

Feb. 06 2016 04:02 PM
Bill from White, SD

Turing is surely not the first person to consider mapping logic into 0 and 1. George Boole did that in the mid-nineteenth century, a working logic machine built shortly thereafter by William Stanley Jevons. Charles Babbage also in that time period developed the idea of a programmable computer. By the time Turing came to be considering this idea, it was already quite old. What I don't know is whether Turing's application to what appears to be Hilbert's problem is unique. I kind of doubt it given the interest at the time before by people like Godel.

Feb. 06 2016 03:38 PM
Mark VA

Cracking of the Enigma Code predates the work of Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park group.

Also, when discussing this subject, it is important to distinguish between the algorithm that broke the code's construction (Marian Rejewski et al), and the algorithm's successive applications and development (after 1939, Alan Turing and Bletchley Park).

The video below should clarify these common "Enigma" misconceptions:

Feb. 03 2016 06:01 PM
Andy Hubbard from Tallahassee, FL

I am not sure about the others, but one of the musical pieces during the Turing section is 'Metamorphosis One' by Philip Glass. What's funny is that it's played while they are talking about machines becoming intelligent (ala, the Turing Test) and this song is featured in the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series (that is, Cylons!)

May. 29 2014 02:39 PM
Nathan from Portland, OR

The Antasoff-Berry computer was not a generally programmable machine. In other words, not Turing complete. And while Poland did contribute greatly to the code breaking efforts, Turing did come up with the critical idea that the working of the machine could be reversed engineered. While it did have some critical innovations, it is the concept of the Turing Machine that is the foundation for modern computing and computer science. Alan Turing is rightfully the father of computer science and modern computing.

Jan. 08 2014 04:04 PM
JohnR from Canada

Turing Pardoned:

Dec. 24 2013 10:34 AM from Iowa city iowa

The first computer was made by iowa State by John Vincent Atanasoff.

Poland did a lot of the work not Alan Turing.

Nov. 03 2013 06:11 PM
Tim Grizzard

There were statements made toward the end of this broadcast where someone expressed the opinion that human beings are nothing more than machines. This view cheapens human life. It is the attitude that grew in German in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Without a healthy fear of God and without His rules to guide us, "every man did what was right in his own eyes", Judges 21:25.

Nov. 03 2013 04:24 PM
JP from San Francisco

Hi folks,

Great work, indeed, as always - thank you.
The music played during the Turing piece was a very interesting mix - I wanted to ask if the pieces' titles/composers are available to be shared?


Nov. 02 2013 06:10 PM

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