Artificial Intelligence and Life Beyond the Algorithm: Alan Turing and the Future of Computing

Artificial Intelligence and life beyond the algorithm: Alan Turing and the future of computing. [click on image to enlarge]- Pictured-A statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.

It's hard to choose where Alan Turing had the biggest impact on history. The British mathematician is known as the father of computing thanks to his work on what he called a universal machine - which provided the framework for development of digital computing - and he also helped significantly shorten the Second World War through his work with the codebreakers of Bletchley Park.
But the interest in Turing is not just historical - his work is still relevant to some of the thorniest problems in tech, particularly around artificial intelligence. While a number of other academics and engineers had a role in the creation of digital computing, what sets Turing apart is the breadth of his influence, says S. Barry Cooper a professor of mathematical logic at the University of Leeds.

"He is bringing ideas about computation to different areas and that's what's really significant about Turing - he made all these connections and he had a global over-arching view of how computation worked in many different contexts," he said.

The development of the digital computing upon which we rely was just one element of his thinking. Because even while engineers were struggling over how to turn his theory into physical computers - mechanical giants with glass valves - Turing was already working on even thornier questions, and his work at Bletchley may have helped broaden his outlook, said Cooper, who has co-authored a book on Turing.

"He's kind of inhabiting a pure mathematical world before going into Bletchley Park and he's forced to engage with real world problems. He comes out the other end and his late work is very much engaged with how the nature of human thinking and the emergence of patterns in nature and so on."

In particular Turing's work on artificial intelligence remains relevant and controversial.

"I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted. I believe further that no useful purpose is served by concealing these beliefs," Turing said in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence.

He wasn't right, but the emergence of artificial intelligences whether in the form of Siri or Watson remains a hot area of research. Most famously in this paper Turing outlined 'The Imitation Game' (now the name of a new film about Turing) which he argued could be a method for testing machine intelligence. It's now better known as the Turing Test and while there are a number of variations the basic concept is that a machine that can convince a human of its intelligence should be thought of as a thinking machine.

"The Turing Test has kind of framed people's thinking. Turing had this knack of focusing on fuzzy problems in kind of rather precise ways. He said well certain questions don't make sense so lets try to pin this down in a practical way," said Cooper.

Turing effectively took a Victorian parlour game and turned it into a piece of modern science. And while the Turing Test has been criticised on a number of levels it also reflects how trying to work out what 'thinking' or 'intelligent' means - and then applying this human concept to machines - is incredibly fraught, and that the appearance of thinking may be the closest we can get. As Cooper notes: "Maybe there is a theoretical barrier which is being recognised in taking such an approach. Maybe there isn't an algorithm for testing intelligence and in that case what do you have - some kind of empirical approach."

Indeed, while Turing's work is responsible for the world of computing which we inhabit, it doesn't necessarily follow that he thought algorithms hold the answer to every question, and we should guard against the assumption that big data can make every decision for us, as Cooper points out. "We have to blame Turing for a lot: the way his work has been interpreted and the primacy of the algorithm these days - and the way in which human thinking has in many ways been marginalised particularly when you are thinking about large organisations."

The computer needs to be kept in context, says Cooper - while it has changed our world and will continue to be important in everything we do, so is the human input which Turing recognises in the Turing Test.

Indeed, Cooper argues that Turing's work on artificial intelligence also links up with his work on incomputability - how to solve problems that cannot be solved by using standard digital computing. "Right the way through this 20 year period of discovery he's engaged with not just modelling how we compute but also modelling how we actually transcend what the computer does. It's an amazing body of thinking. This is why he is still significant to us, he was thinking about issues that are still issues for us and in very basic ways that are still valid," he said.

Cooper added: "We haven't really got used to the idea that the standard model of computation isn't comprehensive enough to describe what's happening with the internet or what's happening with human thinking or at the quantum level and we are going to have to take that onboard at some point."

He added: "It feels to me that this is Turing's revolution in progress now ... it's very much part of the way people are thinking about problems now."-
MORE:- Britain's World War II codebreakers tell their story: Bletchley Park's veteran codebreakers talk about how they helped turn the tide of the war by cracking communications between Hitler and his generals.

The codebreakers at Britain's Bletchley Park helped keep the Allies one step ahead of the Nazi war machine during World War II.

Their contribution was decisive in the outcome of the war, but Bletchley Park is also remembered for another reason. As home to the world's first programmable electronic computer, Colossus, and workplace of Alan Turing, seen by many as the father of computer science, Bletchley Park has an important place in the history of computing.

And yet, for decades the codebreakers were unable to talk about what they’d done – compelled by the Official Secrets Act to hide the extent of their contribution to the war, even from their loved ones.

Today the surviving codebreakers are in their 90s but still have vivid memories of the work they remember as being comparable to a high-stakes crossword puzzle. Captain Jerry Roberts is the last survivor of the nine cryptographers who, from 1942, worked on cracking Tunny, the top level cipher used to protect communiqués from the German High Command to the top generals and field marshals – even messages from Hitler himself.

Tens of thousands of Tunny radio messages were intercepted by the British and broken at Bletchley Park by Roberts and his fellow codebreakers. Tunny provided information that changed the course of the war in Europe and saved lives at critical junctures like the D-Day landings. After the war, General Eisenhower said that the intelligence gleaned at Bletchley had shortened the fighting by at least two years.

Roberts recalls the pressure to decipher the messages as quickly as possible, but also the "fantastic spirit" in the small team and the excitement of the work.

”The pressure was internal, we knew from the signatures that this was important stuff, so we knew we had to get it out as quickly we could," he said, speaking at the launch of an exhibition to commemorate the life of Alan Turing.

”Doing the actual breaking was fascinating – a colleague of mine said that it was the most exciting work that he'd ever done and I would second that. It was like doing a very important crossword puzzle."

The codebreaking itself involved laborious and complex statistical analysis, and Roberts said that they had to break about 50 consecutive pieces of cipher text before messages were able to be decrypted.

”They had to be consecutive places, not 50 places anywhere, it was very challenging. Some times it would take half an hour, other days it would take one or two eight hour shifts. It was a mix of calculation and inspiration.”

The need to develop a fast and reliable way to decrypt Tunny traffic led to the creation of the first programmable electronic computer, the Colossus. Built by post office engineer Tommy Flowers, the Mark II Colossus was room-sized machine comprised of 2,500 valves that rattled through some 25,000 characters a second. The Colossus is credited for being able to crunch through the statistical analysis needed to decrypt a message in a fraction of the time that it took the human codebreakers, but Roberts said that the importance of Colossus in cracking Tunny is sometimes overstated.

“It helped in a rather limited way. People make a great fuss about Colossus but in fact we were doing well at the job that Colossus did,” he said.

”It did speed up the process, probably by half a shift, four hours, it was not huge but it was perhaps more reliable, you knew that it was going to come up [with something].”

Ten versions of the Colossus were built but by 1960, in order to keep the machine's existence secret, all had been dismantled and all drawings of the machine were burnt - so the machine didn't have a direct impact on the development of future computers.

However Turing was aware of the Colossus, and went on to draw up the plans for the Automatic Computing Engine or ACE, whose capabilities were a step beyond those of Colossus, in that it was a stored-program and general-purpose computer. The 1MHz ACE Pilot, which ran its first program at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington in 1950, inspired a commercial model called DEUCE that became the foundation of the emerging British computer industry.

Cracking the Enigma:

Bletchley is perhaps more famous for being home to the codebreakers that cracked Enigma, and in doing so ended the German U-boat threat, which at one point looked like it might cost Britain the war.

As Roberts tells it, the cracking of the German naval Enigma by the British mathematician and father of the computer Alan Turing came at a vital time for Britain.

"In the spring of 1941, Britain was losing the war. The German Wolf Packs were sinking the ships bringing in food and raw materials to Britain left, right and centre - and of course we didn't know where they were out there, waiting, lurking," he said.

"At that juncture, Turing made his fantastic achievement of breaking naval Enigma. At that juncture, there was no other salvation for Britain. Once naval Enigma was broken, the sinkings dropped by 75 per cent."

But despite Turing's critical achievements at Bletchley and his crucial role in the development of the computer, Roberts recalls him as a reserved figure.

"We never worked together but I used to see him walking the corridors with his gaze averted because he was a very shy man," he said.

"He was an amazing hero, but he didn't project himself in that way - the opposite in fact."

Lord Asa Briggs, aged 90, was working in hut six at Bletchley, decrypting Enigma messages used by the German Army and Navy. Each day the German military would change the settings used to encrypt messages and each day the Briggs and his colleagues were engaged in a race against time to crack that day’s code.

”I was in the very heart of the Enigma codebreaking group,” he said.

”We had to break a different code each day and no two days which were exactly the same. I enjoyed it. It was a remarkable activity that I would never have had experienced if it hadn't of been for the war.”

Briggs and his colleagues worked to identify cribs – fragments of German text that provided a clue as to how the Enigma machine that encrypted the message had been set up. These cribs were used to set up electromechanical machines called Bombes which would calculate the Enigma settings that had produced the message, allowing it to be decrypted. It was a joint effort between man and machine, by identifying the cribs the Enigma team narrowed the number of checks needed to identify the encryption settings from 158 million, million, million to about one million. The Bombes would then check each setting until it found a possible valid key. The Bombe was designed by Turing in 1939, and by the end of the war, more than 200 of the machines were being used in the UK to crack codes.

Working in eight hour shifts, Briggs said that he was acutely aware of how important it was to decipher the intercepts and the impact they could have on the course of the war.

“We worked very hard. It could be very tiring and extremely frustrating because we knew that the only purpose to our existence was to break those codes. If we couldn't break them it would play on your mind.”

The codebreakers were a vital part of a much larger chain of people dedicated to intercepting, deciphering, translating and understanding the German intelligence – many of whom knew only as much as their demanded about the work they were doing. At the peak of Bletchley's wartime activities were some 10,000 people working there, and up to two thirds of the staff were women.

”The most important point is that is it was a team effort. Everybody treated each other on equal terms and women played a fundamental part,” said Briggs.

Briggs released memoirs of his time at Bletchley last year, and says that his wartime experiences are still fresh in his mind, still recalling the excitement he felt as the war drew to a close and the soon to be defeated Germans gave up on encrypting their communications. However time has given him new perspectives on what he did at Bletchley.

”It was a very important role for a young person and a great privilege...I was 90 this year and I go on thinking about Bletchley a lot in the light of my own changing experiences.”-

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