# The Life of Alan Turing

Alan Turing’s contribution to World War 2 and technology

When you think of World War 2, you might think of the front lines and the soldiers. But, behind the scenes, there was a concealed effort to win the war by deciphering the German coded messages. The head of these efforts was Alan Turing, who Winston Churchill credited with making the single biggest contribution to the allied victory in the war after he solved the German code. Alongside his contributions to the war, Alan worked on other influential projects such as the Turing Test and the Turing Machine.

The Imitation Game is the title of an award-winning biographical movie about Alan Turing’s efforts during World War 2. Throughout the war, to protect their plans, the Germans encrypted their messages, using codes that would be changed daily. This was done through a machine called Enigma, which would scramble messages in a random but decipherable manner if you knew the code (1). Initially, the codes were able to be cracked by Polish Mathematicians who developed a machine called Bomba. However, the Germans soon changed their methods, and Bomba was no longer effective.

The Imitation Game covers Alan Turing and a group of codebreakers’ experience at Bletchley Park, England, attempting to innovate and decipher Enigma’s codes (2). They realized messages would include certain terms multiple times, such as the names of officers. They were then able to create a successor to Bomba, similarly named Bombe, which assisted them with decoding throughout the rest of the war by searching for these terms with random enigma combinations (3). Even when certain attacks were discovered, sometimes they would purposefully not raise the alarm so that Bombe would not be discovered by the Germans. Though at some points The Imitation Game may give Turing too much credit, the movie shows not only the frustration and determination that went into creating Bombe but also the weight of decisions that came with his power (4).

Born in 1912, Alan Turing attended some of the top schools, including Cambridge University and Princeton. After college, he quickly began tackling some of the most well-known problems in mathematics, such as Entscheidungsproblem. He ended up theorizing one of his earliest successes, the Turing Machine, seen by many as the precursor to computers (2).

The Turing Machine is a hypothetical machine, that was never built, which would be created for one individual function. The machine would be fed a tape with symbols such as numbers and interpret these user-specified characters to determine a response based on an algorithm, such as outputting a 0 whenever it reads a 1 (5). This machine would only hold one function in its memory; so Turing then conceptualized the idea of the Universal Turing Machine (UTM), a more complex Turing Machine that would theoretically be a combination of all the others, capable of performing any singular function. The UTM became a precursor of modern-day computers, which can read data and perform multiple functions (6).

Turing’s ideas continue to have an influence in the present day. In the recent AI craze, the conversation of at what point a computer is truly sentient resurfaced. Knowing this topic would eventually arise, Alan created the Turing Test, which involves someone asking the same question to both a computer and a person and then, based on their responses, guessing which one is a human. The rate at which the robot was mistaken for the human would act as an indicator of its level of sentience (7).

After everything Turing had done for his country, he was still prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’ in 1952 after it was discovered he was involved in a relationship with a man. Just two years later, he was found dead from a supposed suicide and did not receive a pardon until 2013.

At the peak of the war, Bletchley Park was decoding over 84,000 messages a month, completely altering the tide of the battle and saving millions of lives (2). No one knows what would have happened if Enigma had never been deciphered, but it is undeniable that Alan Turing’s legacy can be seen all around us and will hold relevance in our everyday lives.

Bibliography

1. Enigma | Definition, Machine, History, Alan Turing, & Facts | Britannica. (2024). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Enigma-German-code-device
2. Alan Turing | Biography, Facts, Computer, Machine, Education, & Death | Britannica. (2024). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alan-Turing
3. Clark, L., & Steadman, I. (2017, June 7). Alan Turing and his legacy of codebreaking, AI and the birth of computer science. WIRED; WIRED. https://www.wired.com/story/turing-contributions/
4. Black Bear Pictures. (2015). The Imitation Game [Film]. United States.
5. AlanTuring.net What is a Turing machine? (2024). Alanturing.net. https://www.alanturing.net/turing_archive/pages/reference%20articles/what%20is%20a%20turing%20machine.html
6. Universal Turing Machine. (2024). Mit.edu. https://web.mit.edu/manoli/turing/www/turing.html
7. Turing test | Definition & Facts | Britannica. (2024). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/Turing-test

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