The Key Achievements of Alan Turing: The Father of Modern Computers

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Introduction

In this report, I am aiming to highlight the key achievements of Alan Turing, and how his work innovated computing. I will be looking into what impact Turing’s Bombe had on what computers are like today, and how it got ‘the ball rolling’ for future, post war developments.
Alan Turing was an incredibly unique individual, whose work arguably, allowed the British and their allies to beat the Germans during WW2. His achievements ranged from creating a complex machine that enabled the British to crack German Enigma codes, to a test that was constructed to see if a computer was able to think like a human being. Many of these aspects will be discussed in this report.

Historical background

Alan Turing was originally from Maida Vale, London. He went to school in Dorset, but eventually moved to Cambridge to become an undergraduate at Kings College. He was frequently bullied at school for being ‘different’, and really only had one friend, Christopher Morcom. Christopher unfortunately died shortly after befriending Alan. This highly affected Turing with immense grief and sorrow. This fuelled his drive to work harder on topics he and Christopher both shared a love for- Mathematics and Science. He went on to receive first-class honours in mathematics, and in 1936, he wrote a paper entitled ‘On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem’. This piece of work spoke about that some decisions can be ‘undecidable’ and that there is no algorithm that gives a correct yes or no answer to each instance of the problem.

Processes

In 1940, Turing developed a machine called the Bombe. This was a machine that was used to crack German messages that were encrypted using a German ‘enigma’ cypher. Turing was initially given a budget of £100,000 (£4 million today) to build a machine that was capable of cracking the German Enigma codes. The way the Bombe works, is by using an array of symbols on a strip of tape according to a set of rules. At first, the machine would take five hours to do this. When the final machine was all up and running, it was able to crack and decipher codes in around 20 minuets. It did this by using the power equivalent of around 36 different enigma machines. The machine took Turing around seven months to complete (September 1939 to March 1940). If it wasn’t for Turing and the development of the Turing machine, the repercussions of the war would have been far more severe resulting in many deaths.

On top of this, Turing also wrote some text on the idea of Turing Machine. The concept of the machine is extremely simple; however, it is capable of simulating any computer algorithm, despite how complex the algorithm may be. It does this by using an infinity long tape which acts as computer memory. The squares along tape are normally blank, and can be written using symbols. In the in figure 1, the machine is processing 1s and 0s.

The idea behind this came from a machine that was able to take and process instructions that were stored within the computer’s memory and was able to change programs between themselves. A modern-day example of this would be a computer changing from an application such as a web-browser, to a word-processor.

Effects

Many consider the Bombe as being Alan Turing’s most impressive and influential achievement; this is obviously due to him shortening the length of the war by around two years, resulting in countless lives being saved. As well as this, the Bombe also made a significant impact on the development of computing. Turing’s bombe pathed the way for modern computers, and it gave us an amazing insight on what they could potentially be capable of one day. Between now and the early 40s computers have come a very long way. I personally feel that we would not have the advanced technology we have available to us today if it wasn’t for Turing and the creation of his Bombe.

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The German Enigma machine was capable of generating 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 different possible settings every day. This really does put into perspective how significant and powerful the Bombe was. By today’s standards, Apple’s iPhone is around 4 billion times faster than the Bombe. This really does show how much technology has progressed over the years. It is worth noting that there were 180 Bombes being used by the end of the war. This is the reason why the British were able to crack codes so quickly.

As well as the Bombe, Turing also developed the Turing Test. This was a way to see if a computer could interact like a human. If a machine were to pass the Turing test, it would be considered to be indistinguishable from a human.

The reasoning behind why Turing developed this test, was due to the issue of artificial intelligence and whether there will be a point in the future where we can no longer tell the difference between man or machine.

The Turing test opened new doors to verification methods such as CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). This is what a lot of websites use today to distinguish between humans and bots. It is to allow businesses to protect themselves from bot and Spam attacks. If it wasn’t for this integration to websites, there would be countless spam attacks on most websites, deeming them almost unusable.

Conclusion

It is evident that Alan Turing contributed so much to the world of computing, and that if it wasn’t for him, computers would not be as advanced as they are today. Despite this, we can also thank Alan Turing for potentially saving our lives. Many people would have almost certainly died if it wasn’t for his work during the war, resulting in future generations being lost.

I feel satisfied with the amount of research I have done, and I think that I have given an adequate amount of information that gives Mr Turing’s work justice.

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