Thursday, 23 June 2016

Alan Turing - Computability and the Turing Test

Alan Turing is one of the most significant contributors to computing. Turing was a British computer scientist who made several contributions that are individually significant enough to for us to recommend making sure modern kids know about him. When considered together, Turing's output is very impressive, especially considering his sadly short life.

I studied computer science at university and remember Turing popped up in courses on the theory of computing, artificial intelligence and cryptography.  I was interested enough about him to go and read Andrew Hodges biography, The Enigma of Intelligence, and I've been interested in the history of computing ever since.

I've put together some child and teen friendly resources that will help kids learn about Alan Turing.

A new children's book about Alan Turing is available for pre-order for release in August 2016. Alan Turing: Master of Cracking Codes by Ryan Nagelhout is a biography of Turing written for older children.

The Turing Test

One of Turing's most popular and understandable ideas was the Turing test. 

Turing came up with a test to determine whether a machine (computer) has artificial intelligence comparable to humans. He suggested that a human would interact with the machine and humans in the same way and if the human tester couldn't tell the difference then the machine would pass the test. 

Remember that Turing was working at the dawn of computing, Siri was a long way off! 




The Enigma

Turing made a very significant contribution to ending World War II with his secret cryptography work at Bletchley Park. (Bletchley Park is now open an a museum and well worth a visit with older children and teens.)
The recent Imitation Game movie (Rating 12 / PG-13) tells this story and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing.
The German army were using a mechanical Enigma machine to encode important messages so that they couldn't be read. 

Here's how the Enigma machines worked:


Turing developed another machine called the Bombe which was able to decode Enigma messages much faster than humans. This was a fantastic physical and electronic engineering task as well as a cryptography one.

Here's a Bombe in action at Bletchley Park:



Turing Machines

Turing made a very important contribution to the theory of computing. This work became part of the foundation of theoretical computing. The basic idea is that from a very simple set of concepts you can compute very complex things, in fact anything that is computable.

I love that Mike Davey built an actual physical Turing Machine to help explain the concept:



More people from tech history:






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