4 Innovations Alan Turing Contributed To Computer Science (And The World In General)

Dec 24, 2013 By Sarah Vonnegut

“Can machines think?”

Or “can machines do what we (as thinking entities) can do?” Eerie questions to ponder, especially in these tech-forward days with drones that hack other drones mid-air, robots that move like animals, and whatever new thing Apple comes out with. But it’s a question that was first posed to the world 77 years ago, before the first computer was even designed – and way before Siri could ask how she could help us.

59 years after his untimely death, the British cryptanalysist and father of computer science, Alan Turing, the quote’s author, included in his famous paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” finally received a royal pardon by the Queen. The pardon was to forgive him for his acts of “gross indecency” as a gay man living in London in the 50s. In lieu of serving time in prison, he was forced to undergo humiliating and painful procedures that, most believe, drove him to commit suicide two years after standing trial.

While the official Royal Pardon is more than a little late, it’s a welcome commemoration, if only as an opportunity to rehash the enormous contributions Turing gave to the fields of computer science, security, mathematics and many others. To honor Alan Turing’s pardon and all he did for our modern definition of computing, here are 4 of the greatest things he accomplished during his short but brilliant life.


1.       Universal Computing Machine – AKA The Turing Machine

As a King’s College fellow researcher, Turing had a crazy idea about machines multitasking, acting like an ideal model for mathematical calculation. In 1936, Turing wrote a paper that explored the idea of a machine taking instructions stored within its memory to change programs between themselves – changing processes from a word processor to a game to a calculator, for instance. The original concept, which Turing fleshed out in the mid-40s, works by executing a finite set of pre-programmed instructions that can run infinitely or be programmed to stop. In other words, it was a precursor to the computer, a machine dedicated to computing.


2.       Turing Test

Later in his life, Turing held several high ranking positions at the University of Manchester, where he began discussing the issue of artificial intelligence (AI). In an effort to create a standard for intelligence, he designed an experiment now known as the “Turing Test.” A method of testing a machine’s ability to show human-like behavior, the procedure Turing, proposed included a person judging whether he or she could distinguish between a human and a computer while engaging in regular conversation. The test certainly has its limits, including the fact that the test could only be accomplished using a keyboard and screen, but Turing’s idea has become an essential idea in any discussion of AI.


3.       CAPTCHA

Although Turing wasn’t an actual patent holder of this innovation, it was his Turing Test that led to the creation of the CAPTCHA. What might be the greatest acronym ever created, CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. That somewhat annoying feature in many sign-ups on the web is, as most of us know, an automated way to protect websites from bots using grading tests that only humans can read (though sometimes just barely). It’s a security initiative that protects sites from bot/spam attacks, basically. What you probably didn’t know, however, is that the CAPTCHA is considered a Reverse Turing Test since the technology is based off the original test, though used in the opposite way.

AppSec Bonus Fact: Newer CAPTCHA technology has included adding JavaScript support that is too difficult for bots to execute JavaScript.


4.       Breaking The Enigma Code

Turing’s most famous accomplishment is probably from the time he spent breaking Germde during WWII at the British decryption agency, Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Working to decrypt messages from the German Enigma and Lorenz machines, Turing designed a cryptanalytic electromechanical device called the Bombe. It was created to replicate the motions of Enigma machines in the hope to uncover some of the machines daily settings within military networks. The bombe helped the Allies read thousands of German encrypted messages, and definitely helped set the British back in their military attacks throughout Europe.

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Sarah is in charge of social media and an editor and writer for the content team at Checkmarx. Her team sheds light on lesser-known AppSec issues and strives to launch content that will inspire, excite and teach security professionals about staying ahead of the hackers in an increasingly insecure world.

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