This week a claim was made that the sixty-five year old Turing test was finally passed. If this proves true, it will be one of the greatest computing milestones of the decade. While the achievement is being debated this is a good time to revisit the author of the test and his remarkable life and tragic death.
If you were to make a list of computer scientists who have most changed the World, Alan Turing’s name would follow closely behind Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. While Gates and Jobs are household names, Turing’s contributions to defeating the Nazi’s, the field of cryptography and being considered by most as the father of modern computing go largely unknown outside of geek academia. Perhaps even more tragic is the lack of public knowledge surrounding the circumstances of his suicide.
During WWII the Nazi’s had developed ciphers that prevented the Allies from reading their intercepted communications. Being able to communicate without the enemy being able to understand gives an opponent a great advantage. Turing and his team devised a number of techniques for breaking these ciphers aiding the war effort.
After the war he went on to study physics where he is generally considered the “Father of Modern Computing.” One of his many influences during this time was creating the Turning Test- a test that essentially is passed if a computer can convince human interviewers that it too is a human.
In spite of his amazing contributions, his accomplishments were overshadowed during his lifetime by the fact that he was gay. In 1952 he was convicted of the crime of “homosexuality.” To avoid going to prison Turing accepted being injected with high levels of estrogen as a method of chemical castration. This all proved to be too much for him and a few weeks before his 42nd birthday Alan Turing took his own life by ingesting cyanide.
The suicide rate for LGBT teens in our Country is four times higher than that of their straight cohorts. This is in large part attributed to the bullying they experience for being gay. Of the roughly 1,500 gay teens who commit suicide each year, how many Turings has the world lost? What great discoveries has the world been robbed of by their untimely deaths?
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11/13/2014 Update: The Association for Computing Machinery reported today that the prize money for building a machine that can pass the Turing Test has now quadrupled to $1,000,000 thanks to an infusion of cash from Google.