Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
How new technologies are modifying our way of life

mardi 11 mai 2004

BusinessWeek will celebrate its 75 years of existence in 2004. And the magazine decides to celebrate this anniversary with a series of articles about the great thinkers and innovators from these past 75 years. The series stars with a profile of Alan Turing, "Thinking Up Computers." In case you forgot, Turing is the man who created the concept of an "universal machine" which would perform various and diverse actions when given various sets of instructions. In other words, he laid out in the 1920s the foundations of software.

Here is the introduction of this article.

A shy, awkward man born into the British upper middle class in 1912, Turing played a seminal role in the creation of computers. To be sure, many other people contributed, from mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the 1830s to Herman Hollerith -- whose tabulating company became IBM -- at the turn of the century.
But it was Turing who made the critical conceptual breakthrough, almost as an aside in a paper he wrote while in his 20s. Attempting to resolve a long-standing debate over whether any one method could prove or disprove all mathematical statements, Turing invoked the notion of a "universal machine" that could be given instructions to perform a variety of tasks. Turing spoke of a "machine" only abstractly, as a sequence of steps to be executed.
But his realization that the data fed into a system also could function as its directions opened the door to the invention of software. "He is the one who found the underlying reason why an automatic calculating device can do so many things," says Martin Davis, professor emeritus of computer science at New York University and a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.

The magazine also gives details about Turing and the Enigma, the machine used to break the coded messages sent by the Germans to field commanders and U-boats during World War II.

And here is the conclusion about Turing.

Turing didn't live to see the revolution he unleashed. But he left an enormous legacy. In 1950 he proposed a bold measure for machine intelligence: If a person could hold a typed conversation with "somebody" else, not realizing that a computer was on the other end of the wire, then the machine could be deemed intelligent. Since 1990 an annual contest has sought a computer that can pass this "Turing Test." Nobody has yet taken the $100,000 purse. Turing would no doubt be delighted that engineers the world over are still trying.
Alan Turing Here is a photograph of Alan Turing (Credit: unknown). For more information about the man, his life and his works, here are two great sources: this Wikipedia page and the official Alan Turing Home Page, maintained by Andrew Hodges, author of Alan Turing: the Enigma.
The Enigma cryptanalytic machine This is a photograph of the Enigma cryptanalytic machine devised by Alan Turing to decode encrypted messages sent by the Germans during World War II (Credit: unknown). For very thorough details about the Enigma, you can either buy the book mentioned above, or read this long page, "Solving the Enigma: History of the Cryptanalytic Bombe."

Finally, if you want to know more about what Turing wrote in 1950, the full text of "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" is available for your reading pleasure.

Update based on comments here and on Slashdot: the image above is the Enigma machine used by the Germans, not the one built by Turing. The machine he devised was called a "Bombe" and here is a link to a photograph of it. Thanks to Ian, from for the clarification.

Sources: Andy Reinhardt, BusinessWeek Magazine, May 10, 2004; and various websites

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