Alan Turing Saved My Life

Thoughts on a war hero whose country turned on him

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A Nazi bomber flies over London in the autumn of 1940. (AP)

Alan Turing saved my life.

In early September 1940, when bombing industrial sites alone seemed inconclusive, the German Luftwaffe began round-the-clock bombing of British civilian targets, particularly London and other key cities. These included Liverpool, a major industrial port, where I would be born in late October of that year during the most intense part of what the British called "the Blitz" -- when target cities were bombed for 57 straight nights. (Bombing would continue for eight months more, though never as sustained as in those first two months.)

On Liverpool's Royal Infirmary, a hospital in ruins, the bombs fell pitilessly. A flapping tarpaulin was all that protected my young mother in labor from bombs and the cold night outside. Anesthesia was reserved for the war wounded only. German U-boats (submarines) had utterly disrupted transatlantic food shipments, so as a newborn, I was soon in danger of starving.

A celebration of the life and work of the pioneering computer scientist
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Yet even as my birth took place, a brilliant young Cambridge don, recruited a few years earlier in deepest secrecy, was feverishly at work. He was Alan Turing, working in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park, a former Buckinghamshire estate of mixed architectural styles -- Victorian Gothic, Tudor, Dutch Baroque -- that had been converted to a wartime research installation, devoted to cracking the German codes.

His luminous intelligence and the brilliance of his team (some of them recruited in a competition to see who could finish a newspaper crossword puzzle the fastest) allowed the British to begin secretly to decrypt signals from the Enigma and Lorenz machines, used for communication between German war headquarters and deployed U-boats, and land an airborne forces.

"I won't say that what Turing did made us win the war," his statistical clerk, Jack Good, told me later, as I was researching a book that would be the first history of artificial intelligence, called Machines Who Think, "but I daresay we might have lost it without him."

I interviewed Good in the mid-1970s, when the Official Secrets Act still silenced many. Only decades later were Turing's associates, and then, historians of computing, mathematics, and cryptography, able to reveal in detail how crucial Turing's contribution had been to the war effort, to the ultimate Allied victory, and to hungry babies like me, born into what then looked like a losing effort.

A man who had saved his country was hounded to death by it.

My first acquaintance with Turing was related to my research in the history of AI. His work in the field was groundbreaking -- and emerged soon after he was able to lay down his wartime responsibilities.

During a sabbatical at his old school, King's College, Cambridge, he wrote a paper in September 1948 called "Intelligent Machinery." Unpublished for almost two decades, its intellectual penetration is startling even today. In it he proposed the possibility of machine intelligence, beginning with arguments against the idea: that humans will not admit the possibility of rivals in intellectual power; that such a machine, if possible, would be irreverent; that machinery and humans are vastly different; that Gödel's Theorem shows that machines are inherently incapable of solving problems which humans can overcome; and that, anyway, machine intelligence is no more than a reflection of the intelligence of its creator. And then he refuted each one -- brilliantly.

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Pamela McCorduck has published ten books, including Machines Who Think, which introduced her to Alan Turing's work. Her latest is Bounded Rationality, a novel.

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