Alan Turing should have become a household name


When one thinks of computers, we often think of two names: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They made personal computers popular and are at the forefront of the computer industry, founding Microsoft and Apple respectively. But what about the man who practically began the computer industry, Alan Turing (1912-1954)? Long forgotten, except for tech geeks and industry veterans, namely because of his controversial personal life.

June 23 would have been Alan Turing’s 100th birthday, and in 1936 he published a paper that would give rise to the very idea of computers: On Computable Numbers, which introduced the ideas of algorithms and computing machines, two building blocks of today’s technology. After World War II, Turing then worked on the Automated Computing Engine (ACE) and the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (Edvac).

In 1950, Turing proposed the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) in a paper called “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. In the paper, Turing made a test in which a computer would be judged intelligent if another human could not tell the difference between the responses of a human and the artificially intelligent machine.

Turing’s ACE designs made it onto the first personal computer, the Bendix G-15 (1956). At the time, computing systems took up entire rooms, and the G-15 was a compact 1.5 m x 1 m x 1 m and cost $49,500 ($60,000 with peripherals) and weighed “only” 450 kg (950 lb). Like most computers at the time, it was designed for scientific and industrial use. However, it is considered a “personal” computer because it did not need a dedicated operator and anyone could access the machine. Only 400 of them were made and only a few survive today.

The legacy of Alan Turing is being celebrated in 2012, which the scientific community calls the “Alan Turing year”, with series and lectures based on Turing’s work taking place all over the world.