The innovation mindset of Alan Turing

Alan Turing is the founder father of computer science, the originator of the dominant technology of today. But these words were not spoken in his own lifetime.

Turing, the progenitor of modern computing, is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand. Post war at Manchester University, his genius embraced the first vision of modern computing and seminal insights into what we know as ‘artificial intelligence’. As one of the most influential Bletchley Park code breakers of World War II, his cryptology yielded intelligence that hastened the Allied victory.

Turing has now been recognised for the enormous impact his work has had on how we live today, chosen by the Bank of England to be the new face of its £50 note. The note will include a table and mathematical formulas from his work, and also include a quote: This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.

The Bank of England has hidden a tribute too – on the banknote are the numbers 1010111111110010110011000, which is a binary code that can be converted into decimal numbers to reveal Turing’s birthday – 23061912 or June 23, 1912. The new polymer £50 note is expected to enter circulation by the end of 2021.

On June 7, 1954 Turing died a criminal, forced to endure chemical castration following a conviction under Britain’s Victorian laws against homosexuality. The UK Government subsequently apologised for his treatment in 2009, and he was granted a royal pardon in 2013. A coroner determined that he had taken his own life from cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside him. The motive for his apparent suicide remains unclear, but known homosexuals were denied security clearances, which meant that Turing could not be involved in secret work during the Cold War, leaving him excluded and embittered.

Turing’s name is associated with the top-secret wartime operations of code breakers at Bletchley Park, where he oversaw and inspired the effort to decrypt ciphers generated by Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine, which had once seemed impenetrable. The Germans themselves regarded the codes as unbreakable.

On declaration of war, Turing joined the Bletchley Park code breakers at the Government Code and Cypher School, the forerunner of GCHQ, working in makeshift huts. Turing’s section, ‘Hut 8′, deciphered Naval and in particular U-boat messages, and was a key unit at Bletchley.

Their greatest initial challenge was figuring out the method of encryption of the German Enigma device, which was invented twenty years earlier by Arthur Scherbius, a German electrical engineer who had patented it as a civilian machine to encrypt commercial messages. The machine worked by entering letters on a typewriter-like keyboard and then encoding them through a series of rotors to a light board, which showed the coded equivalents. The machine was said to be capable of generating almost 159 quintillion permutations.

At the time, German submarines were prowling the Atlantic, hunting Allied ships carrying vital cargo for the war effort. The Allies relied on the cryptologists to decode messages betraying the U-boat locations. By one estimate, Turing’s work may have cut the war short by two years. They allowed code breakers to decipher up to 4,000 messages a day.

By 1942, Turing was the genius loci at Bletchley, famous as ‘Prof’, shabby, nail-bitten, tie-less, sometimes halting in speech and awkward of manner, the source of many hilarious anecdotes about bicycles, gas masks, the foe of charlatans and status-seekers, relentless in long shift work. He was known for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by others.

In the last stage of the war (for which he was awarded an OBE) he created the ‘Universal Turing Machine, in effect the digital computer, a machine that would offer unlimited scope for practical progress towards embodying intelligence in an artificial form.

The concept of the Turing Machine has become the foundation of the modern theory of computation and computability. Imagine, as Turing did, each particular algorithm written out as a set of instructions in a standard form. The work of interpreting the instructions and carrying them out is itself a mechanical process, and so can itself be embodied in a particular Turing Machine, namely the Universal Turing Machine, ‘one machine for all possible tasks’.

It is hard now not to think of a Turing Machine as a computer program, and the mechanical task of interpreting the program as what the computer itself does. Additionally, the abstract Universal Turing Machine naturally exploits what was later seen as the ‘stored program’ concept essential to the modern computer: it embodies the crucial insight that symbols representing instructions are no different in kind from symbols representing numbers.

Turing’s post-war work at the University of Manchester on the first functioning British computers was hugely significant. He laid down principles that have moulded the historical record of the relationship between humans and machines. He was fascinated by the interplay between human thought processes and the computer, and spoke about ‘building a brain’.

At Manchester, Turing made highly significant contributions to the emerging field of computing, including the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory, publishing a seminal paper, On Computable Numbers, referred to as ‘the founding document of the computer age’.

His ‘Abbreviated Code Instructions’ marked the beginning of programming languages. Out of this came pioneering innovation on what would now be called neural nets, written to amplify his earlier suggestions that a sufficiently complex mechanical system could exhibit learning ability. This was never published in his lifetime.

At Manchester, Turing could perhaps have led the world in software development. His partly explored ideas included the use of mathematical logic for program checking, implementing logical calculus on the machine, and other ideas which, combined with his massive knowledge of combinatorial and statistical methods, could have set the agenda in computer science for years ahead.

This, however, he failed to do; his work on machine-code programming was produced only as a working manual, limited in scope. Instead, there followed a confused period, in which Turing hovered between new topics and old.

Out of this confused era arose, however, the most lucid and far-reaching expression of Turing’s philosophy of machine and Mind: his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950) showed the wit and drama of the Turing Test that has proved a lasting stimulus, a classic contribution to the philosophy and practice of Artificial Intelligence research.

Eccentric, solitary, gloomy, vivacious, resigned, angry, eager, dissatisfied — these had always been his ever-varying characteristics, and despite the strength that he showed in coping with difficult personal circumstances, no-one could have predicted his shabby treatment, which caused his demise.

Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the War victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013.

From Tesla, to Turing, to Jobs, to Musk, entrepreneurs’ vision and endeavour pushes civilisation forward. They are the driving force of human evolution, the vanguard of innovation leading us into the future. Innovators are not just those who run a business as entrepreneurs, an innovator is anybody who is consciously building the future that has an impact on society.

To create something truly original requires a sense of courage, curiosity and vision. The interesting paradox here is that often those who invent new things also have a healthy disrespect for what has already been achieved. They use the past not as a boundary, but as the frontier upon which to innovate.

In this sense, those seeking to innovate to find reassurance in the discomfort of originality, as those who strive to create new things are quickly confronted by the stark reality that we live in a world that finds comfort in doing what is tried and tested. The battle against conventional wisdom, therefore, becomes the innovator’s greatest encounter.

Turing’s scientific contributions are in line with many of history’s greats. It’s also easy to recognise many of Turing’s personality traits in today’s tech entrepreneurs who succeeded him. All are great dreamers, certainly, but they also possess a tenacious and sometimes intransigent character with regards to the realisation of their vision.

Turing’s is a parable of radical innovation that goes beyond incremental advances in search of great opportunities that have the potential to open up a nexus of possibilities for society. It is what Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One describes as 10x innovation, meaning that it provides a solution at least 10 times better than the current available solution.

Thiel points as examples to the Google algorithm, which was at least 10x more powerful than the others search engines that preceded it, as well as the Amazon platform, which offered at least 10x more books than any bookseller in the world. It is this kind of innovation, he notes, the world goes from a state of impossibility to a market reality.

Not many entrepreneurs today are working on 10x projects. Perhaps it is Elon Musk, with his SpaceX, Hyperloop and Tesla projects that will mark him out as the 10X innovator of the early C21st. The 10x innovation can sometimes be scary – recall the introduction of modern cinema in 1895 by the Lumière brothers, where the audience fled the room when they thought that the train in the movie would come out of the screen!

Fast-forward two decades from Turing’s death, to guys making personal computers in a garage in San Francisco in 1976. They had a name for their product and needed a logo. They idolised Turing’s ingenuity, genius and talent for putting together the first computer, and decided to honour him and comment on his persecution by removing a single bite from the apple graphic they had picked to represent their company.

And that’s how we got the iconic Apple logo on the back of all of our phones, computers, and iPods. Designer Rob Janoff says it was an easy choice, a tribute to Turing by Jobs and Wozniak. Jobs said the apple logo symbolises our use of computers to obtain knowledge and, ideally, enlighten the human race.

So the story goes – other theories – that the logo references Newton’s discovery of gravity also exist. The original apple logo from 1976 featured a hand drawn image of Isaac Newton under the tree where the apple fell with the copy: A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone. Perfectly sums up Apple, as pioneers.

Whatever the story of the Apple logo, everyone using a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program today, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine and his legacy of innovation.

We don’t celebrate Turing enough, probably in part because of his sexuality, and also probably because he was a computer scientist and mathematician. We don’t value that history enough either. For me, putting him on a banknote for the public to see everyday is a start. Better, put him in the school curriculum as an icon in the history of science.

Turing was a remarkable 10x innovator. We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done, he once said of himself. Whatever you’re working on as an innovating entrepreneur today, this week, this month, look to the achievements and mindset of Alan Turing. You cannot climb uphill by thinking downhill thoughts. He didn’t stop to think how far he could go, neither should you.

Be a 10x entrepreneur like Alan Turing

From Nikola Tesla, to Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, entrepreneurs’ vision and endeavour push civilisation forward. They are the driving force of human evolution, the vanguard of innovation leading us into the future. Innovators are not limited to those who run a business as entrepreneurs, an innovator is anybody who is consciously building the future that has an impact on society.

To create something truly original requires a deep sense of courage and vision. The interesting paradox here is that often those who invent new things also have a healthy disrespect for what has already been achieved. They use the past not as a boundary, but as the frontier upon which to innovate.

In this sense, those seeking to truly innovate find reassurance in the discomfort of originality, as those who strive to create new things are quickly confronted by the stark reality that we live in a world that finds comfort in doing what is tried and tested. The battle against conventional wisdom, therefore, becomes the innovator’s greatest encounter.

One innovator who was certainly confronted by conventional wisdom was Alan Turing. As an academic, Turing delivered a paper in 1936, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, in which he presented the notion of a universal machine capable of computing anything that is computable. Turing’s inventions would go on to be called ‘Turing Machines’, the blue print for today’s computers.

After receiving his PhD from Princeton in 1938, Turing returned to Cambridge, and then took a position with the Government Code and Cypher School, a code-breaking organisation, the forerunner of GCHQ. During World War II, Turing was a leading participant in wartime code-breaking at Bletchley Park where he made major advances in the field of cryptanalysis, including specifying the bombe, an electromechanical device used to decipher German Enigma encrypted signals.

Turing’s contributions to the code-breaking process didn’t stop there. He also wrote two papers about mathematical approaches to code-breaking, which became such important assets that GCHQ waited until April 2012 to release them publically.

In the aftermath of WWII victory, Turing arrived in Manchester with an even bigger task in mind – development of his ‘Turing Machines’. It would be a task he left unfinished, publically humiliated and destroyed by the revelation of his sexuality and prosecution for indecency.

Turing held senior positions in the mathematics and the computing faculties at the University of Manchester in the late 1940s. He first addressed the issue of artificial intelligence and proposed an experiment known as the ‘Turing Test’ – an effort to create an intelligence design standard for the tech industry. Over the subsequent decades, the test has significantly influenced debates over artificial intelligence.

At Manchester, Turing made highly significant contributions to the emerging field of computing, including the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. However, despite his soaring intellect, if tragedy requires the inventor to be undone by a fundamental flaw, it may have been Turing’s autism that brought about his fall.

Turing was incapable of speaking anything but the plain truth where a lie might be less hurtful. A fateful police interview in which Turing, having arrived to report a robbery, haplessly incriminates himself with the admission that he had been having sex with a man, was fateful.

Consequently, Turing lost his job, and was given experimental ‘chemical castration’ in 1952, after being convicted for homosexual activity. His criminal record resulted in the loss of his security clearance and meant he was no longer able to work for GCHQ.

Turing died on June 7, 1954. Following a post-mortem, it was determined that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. An apple with a single bite taken from it was found next to the body The autopsy reported that four ounces of fluid which smelled strongly of bitter almonds, as does a solution of cyanide was found in the stomach. Trace smell of bitter almonds was also reported in vital organs. The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was asphyxia due to cyanide poisoning and ruled a suicide.

Turing’s death may have been an accident, the apple was never tested for cyanide, nothing in the accounts of Turing’s last days suggested he was suicidal and Turing had cyanide in his house for chemical experiments he conducted in his spare room.

Acknowledged as founding father of the discipline of British computer science, he posthumously received an apology on behalf of the British Government, for prosecuting him as a homosexual and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. Turing was subsequently given a rare Royal pardon almost 60 years after he committed suicide.

Turing’s scientific contributions are in line with many of history’s greats. It’s also easy to recognise many of Turing’s personality traits in today’s tech entrepreneurs who succeeded him. All are great dreamers, certainly, but they also possessed a tenacious and sometimes intransigent character with regards the realisation of their vision.

Turing’s is a parable of radical innovation that goes beyond incremental advances in search of great opportunities that have the potential to upset the status quo, and open up a nexus of possibilities for society. It is what investor Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One describes as 10x innovation, meaning that it provides a solution at least 10 times better than the solution currently on the market.

Thiel points as examples the Google algorithm, which was at least 10x more powerful than the others search engines that preceded it, as well as the Amazon website, which offered at least 10x more books than any bookseller in the world. It is this kind of innovation, he notes, the world goes from a state of impossibility to a market reality.

Many entrepreneurs today are working on 10x projects, such as lightweight aerial drones that offer a multitude of potential uses, to Bitcoin, a crypto currency that has the potential to replace current cash systems. Perhaps it is Elon Musk, with his SpaceX, Hyperloop and Tesla projects that will mark him out as the 10X innovator of the early C21st.

In the case of Turing, his efforts to create an intelligent machine ‘with a brain and a memory’ were almost terminated by an impatient military commander. The latter tried repeatedly to cancel his initiative, deemed too risky and esoteric. Often, short-term urgency forces the use of more traditional methods to solve a problem.

Therefore, 10x innovation can sometimes be scary. In particular, we remember the classic episode of modern cinema’s introduction in 1895 by the Lumière brothers, where spectators fled the room when they started to believe that the train shown in the movie would come out of the screen!

Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. An exceptional man, his awkward posture and scruffy tweeds suggest a giant intellect trapped within the body of an overgrown schoolboy – indeed in the play Breaking The Code, currently playing at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, the only time he becomes truly eloquent is during an address in which he likens the grey matter of the human brain to the tepid porridge of his boarding school days.

We don’t celebrate Turing enough probably in part because of his sexuality, and also probably because he was a computer scientist and we don’t value that history enough either. For me, put him on a banknote. Better, put him in the school curriculum as an icon in the history of science. Turing is remembered as the father of modern computing and artificial intelligence. He should be remembered, additionally, as a pioneer in the practical application of maths that advanced both society and industry.

Suicide, an accident or an act of subterfuge by British Security Services who considered Turing a high security risk? Whatever happened, the fact remains that a half-eaten apple was found by Turing’s bedside. Fast-forward two decades, to a few guys making personal computers in a garage in San Francisco.

They had a name for their product and were now in need of a logo. The men were aware of Turing’s contributions to computers and coding, idolised his ingenuity, genius and talent for putting together the first real computer, and decided to honour him and comment on his persecution by removing a single bite from the apple graphic they had picked to represent their company. And that’s how we got the iconic Apple logo on the back of all of our phones, computers, and iPods.

Or is it? Is it a nod back to Turing and his role as creator of the machine for which Apple made its business logo? Designer Rob Janoff claims that he didn’t explicitly intend this meaning when he created the logo in 1977.

He intended it to be about taking a bite out of an apple for sure, because of its use as a symbol over hundreds of years of mythology, back to the Garden of Eden, and the logo being the ‘symbol of lust and knowledge’. For Steve Jobs, the apple logo symbolises ‘our use of computers to obtain knowledge and, ideally, enlighten the human race’.

So the story goes – other theories – that the logo references Newton’s discovery of gravity also exist. The original apple logo from 1976 featured a hand drawn image of Isaac Newton under the tree where the apple fell with the copy: A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone’. Perfectly sums up Apple, especially at the time as what they were doing was so pioneering.

Whatever the real story of the Apple logo, if it isn’t in recognition of Turing, the fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.

Turing was a remarkable 10x innovator. We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done, he once said of himself. It was Socrates who said, The unexamined life is not worth living. It’s not the path itself that matters the most; it’s that it has been consciously created and is therefore a reflection of who you are.

Whatever you’re working on as an innovating entrepreneur today, this week, this month, look to the achievements of Alan Turing, and make your x10 mark.