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.

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