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.