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Happy birthday Alan, I hope to meet you someday

Today, June 23,  is the Centenary of Alan Turing’s birth in London. During his relatively brief life, Turing made a unique impact on the history of computing, computer science, artificial intelligence, developmental biology, and the mathematical theory of computability.

Google honored him with an animated, playable Turing machine on the homepage.

Alan Turing created a new world of science and technology, with a short declarative sentence in the middle of his 1936 paper on computable numbers: “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” writes Daniel Dennet in the Atlantic. “Turing didn’t just intuit that this remarkable feat was possible; he showed exactly how to make such a machine. With that demonstration the computer age was born.”

“As Turing fully realized, there was nothing to prevent the process of evolution from copying itself on many scales, of mounting discernment and judgment. The recursive step that got the ball rolling — designing a computer that could mimic any other computer — could itself be reiterated, permitting specific computers to enhance their own powers by redesigning themselves, leaving their original designer far behind. Already in “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” his classic paper in Mind, 1950, he recognized that there was no contradiction in the concept of a (non-human) computer that could learn.”

“[Turing’s} work on computers was conducted between the years 1945 to 1950. It seems extremely likely, then, that Turing’s realization that recursive algorithms could ultimately ‘leave their original designer far behind’ came in the 1940s. So far as I know, this is the earliest discovery of the technological Singularity,” writes Extropia DaSilva on the KurzweilAI Forums.

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A Universal Turing Machine (UTM) implemented in Conway’s Game of Life, designed by Paul Rendell (http://rendell-attic.org/gol/utm/index.htm)

The Turing-Church conjecture states that any computation executed by one computer with access to an infinite amount of storage, can be done by any other computing machine with infinite storage, no matter what its configuration. One computer can do anything another can do. In other words, all computation is equivalent. Turing and Church called this universal computation. Mathematician Stephen Wolfram takes this idea even further and suggests that many very complex processes in the realms of biology and technology are basically computationally equivalent,” writes Kevin Kelly.

Following the Turing-Church conjecture, a human mind can be transferred from a biological brain to another computational substrate (Mind Uploading). Mind Uploading research is ongoing and may achieve practical results in this century, perhaps in only a few decades. Once Mind Uploading technology is available, humans will be able to live indefinitely in non biological bodies and make backup copies of themselves. Future civilizations of uploads will colonize the galaxy and the universe, and perhaps they will develop “magic” space-time engineering to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future.” I hope we will be resurrected by our mind children in the far future, and I hope to have the honor to meet Alan Turing (the title of this post is not a joke).

Perhaps they will be able to create synthetic realities inhabited by sentient minds, and perhaps we ourselves are sentient minds in a synthetic, computationally generated reality, like a reality-wide version of the Universal Turing Machine in the computational universe of the Game of Life, shown in the picture.

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A Turing Machine built with LEGO Mindstorms (http://www.legoturingmachine.org/)
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Alan Turing Year

On a lighter note, the CWI in Amsterdam built a simple LEGO Turing Machine to honor Alan Turing, to show everyone how simple a computer actually is. Primary goals were to make every operation as visible as possible and to make it using the automatic components of just a single LEGO Mindstorms NXT set, to make it easy to reproduce for those interested. The LEGO Turing Machine is part of the exhibition Turing’s Erfenis.

“Turing not only pushed forward the arrival of the computer, but also the link between maths, chemistry and biology in his work on “morphogenesis”, studying patterns of growth in nature,” reports the Independent in an article on the Turing Centenary exhibition at the Science Museum in London. “You emerge from this excellent free exhibition — financed by Google — with the sense that some small redress has been made, albeit 50 years late, for the appallingly shabby treatment meted out to one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.”

“The exhibition works on several levels, hands-on exhibits walking even technophobes through the basics of computer programming. Non-scientists will also be drawn to the moving letters penned by Turing as a schoolboy to the mother of a friend who died of TB (clearly the love of his life), and to the castrating oestrogen pills he shockingly chose instead of jail following his conviction for being gay, for which then crime he was arrested after reporting a burglary in 1951. The drugs worked: he lost his libido. But his intellect also lost its edge.”

This treatment of one of the greatest scientific geniuses of all times seems shameful, brutal and inhumane to our modern eyes, or at least it should. A few months ago the U.K government rejected calls for Turing to be granted an official pardon for convictions for homosexuality dating back to the 1950s: “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense.” In 2009 former Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology to Mr Turing, labelling the treatment he had received as “utterly unfair” and “appalling”.

“Geek lore would have it that the logo of the Apple corporation is a nod to Turing’s suicide, on the assumption that the bitten apple found by his side was laced with the cyanide that killed him. Evidence here scotches that Snow White theory,” continues the Independent. “This Great Briton died as he had lived — a quiet man of reason, not given to theatrical flourish.”

But I hope he is not gone forever.

  • 23rd century, Alan Turing is awakened from a time-space loop generator.
    A young lady welcomes him “welcome to the 23rd century Mister Turing! One thing though.. would you please come with me for rehabilitation? In the 23rd century NOT being bisexual is regarded as a morality crime. Neural readjustment will only take half an hour…”

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Khannea – forced neural readjustment of sexual preferences does not sound like my idea of Heaven. More like Hell. Note that this exactly what the government did to him in the 1950s. I hope we will become more civilized before building time-space loop generators.