You may have read the British Government is being petitioned to grant a posthumous pardon to one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and most successful codebreakers, Alan Turing. You may also have read that Turing was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 and died tragically two years later.

But who, exactly, was he?

Born in London in 1912, Turing helped lay the foundations of the “information age” we live in.

He did his first degree at King’s College, Cambridge, and then became a Fellow there. His first big contribution was his development of a mathematical model of computation in 1936. This became known as the Turing Machine.

It was not the first time a computer had been envisaged: that distinction belonged to Charles Babbage, a 19th century mathematician who designed a computer based on mechanical technology and built parts of it (some of which may be seen at the Science Museum in London or Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, for example).

But Babbage’s design was necessarily complicated, as he aimed for a working device using specific technology. Turing’s design was independent of any particular technology and was not intended to be built.

It was very simple and would be very inefficient and impractical as a device for doing real computations. But its simplicity meant it could be used to do mathematical reasoning about computation.

Turing used his abstract machines to investigate what kinds of things could be computed. He found some tasks which, although perfectly well defined and mathematically precise, are uncomputable. The first of these is known as the halting problem, which asks, for any given computation, whether it will ever stop. Turing showed that this was uncomputable: there is no systematic method that always gives the right answer.

So, if you have ever wanted a program that can run on your laptop and test all your other software to determine which of them might cause your laptop to “hang” or get stuck in a never-ending loop, the bad news is such a comprehensive testing program cannot be written.

Uncomputability is not confined to questions about the behaviour of computer programs. Since Turing’s work, many problems in mainstream mathematics have been found to be uncomputable. For example, the Russian mathematician and computer scientist, Yuri Matiyasevich, showed in 1970 that determining if a polynomial equation with several variables has a solution consisting only of whole numbers is also an uncomputable problem.

Turing machines have been used to define measures of the efficiency of computations. They underpin formal statements of the P vs NP problem, one of the Millennium Prize problems.

Another important feature of Turing’s model is its capacity to treat programs as data. This means the programs that tell computers what to do can themselves, after being represented in symbolic form, be given as input to other programs. Turing Machines that can take any program as input, and run that program on some input data, are called Universal Turing Machines.

These are really conceptual precursors of today’s computers, which are stored-program computers, in that they can treat programs as data in this sense. The oldest surviving intact computer in the world, in this most complete sense of the term, is CSIRAC at Melbourne Museum.

It seems a mathematical model of computation was an idea whose time had come. In 1936, the year of Turing’s result, another model of computation was published by Alonzo Church of Princeton University. Although Turing and Church took quite different routes, they ended up at the same place, in that the two models give exactly the same notion of computability.

In other words, the classification of tasks into computable and uncomputable is independent of which of these two models is used.

Other models of computation have been proposed, but mostly they seem to lead to the same view of what is and is not computable. The Church-Turing Thesis states that this class of computable functions does indeed capture exactly those things which can be computed in principle (say by a human with unlimited time, paper and ink, who works methodically and makes no mistakes).

It implies Turing Machines give a faithful mathematical model of computation. This is not a formal mathematical result, but rather a working assumption which is now widely accepted.

Turing went to Princeton and completed his PhD under Church, returning to Britain in 1938.

Early in the Second World War, Turing joined the British codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park, north-west of London. He became one of its most valuable assets. He was known by the nickname “Prof” and was described by colleague Jack Good as “a deep rather than a fast thinker”.

At the time, Germany was using an encryption device known as Enigma for much of its communications. This was widely regarded as completely secure. The British had already obtained an Enigma machine, from the Poles, and building on their work, Turing and colleague Gordon Welchman worked out how the Enigma-encrypted messages collected by the British could be decrypted.

Turing designed a machine called the Bombe, named after a Polish ice cream, which worked by testing large numbers of combinations of Enigma machine configurations, in order to help decrypt secret messages. These messages yielded information of incalculable value to the British. Winston Churchill described the Bletchley Park codebreakers as “geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled”.

In 1945, after the war, Turing joined the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where he wrote a report on how to construct an electronic computer, this time a general-purpose one unlike the machines dedicated to cryptanalysis which he helped to design at Bletchley Park.

This report led to the construction of an early computer (Pilot ACE) at NPL in 1950. By then, Turing had already moved on to Manchester University, where he worked on the first general-purpose stored-program computer in the world, the Manchester “Baby”.

In their early days, computers were often called “electronic brains”. Turing began to consider whether a computer could be programmed to simulate human intelligence, which remains a major research challenge today and helped to initiate the field of artificial intelligence.

A fundamental issue in such research is: how do you know if you have succeeded? What test can you apply to a program to determine if it has intelligence? Turing proposed that a program be deemed intelligent if, in its interaction with a human, the human is unable to detect whether he or she is communicating with another human or a computer program. (The test requires a controlled setting, for example where all communication with the human tester is by typed text.)

His paper on this topic – Computing Machinery and Intelligence – was published in 1950. The artificial intelligence community holds regular competitions to see how good researchers’ programs are at the Turing test.

The honours Turing received during his lifetime included an OBE in 1945 and becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1951.

His wartime contributions remained secret throughout his life and for many years afterwards.

In 1952 he was arrested for homosexuality, which was illegal in Britain at the time. Turing was found guilty and required to undergo “treatment” with drugs. This conviction also meant he lost his security clearance.

In 1954 he ingested some cyanide, probably via an apple, and died. An inquest classified his death as suicide, and this is generally accepted today. But some at the time, including his mother, contended his death was an accidental consequence of poor handling of chemicals during some experiments he was conducting at home in his spare time.

The irony of Turing losing his security clearance – after the advantage his work had given Britain in the war, in extraordinary secrecy – is clear.

The magnitude of what was done to him has become increasingly plain over time, helped by greater availability of information about the work at Bletchley Park and changing social attitudes to homosexuality.

Next year, 2012, will be the centenary of Turing’s birth – with events planned globally to celebrate the man and his contribution. As this year approached, a movement developed to recognise Turing’s contribution and atone for what was done to him. In 2009, British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, responding to a petition, issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government for the way Turing was treated.

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Credit of the article given to Graham Farr, Monash University