Alan Turing: who was and what he taught about Artificial Intelligence

Written by Alana Team
on July 10, 2020

Alan Turing was an unmatched guy. Although he died young, at 41, he left a positive legacy for society and science.

Alan Turing was an unmatched guy. Although he died young, at 41, he left a positive legacy for society and science.

Many know the mathematician because of his remarkable contribution to computing, as he was the first to question whether machines could think, but do you know who Alan Turing was: the war hero?

He was part of the British code-breaking organization's working group during World War II. Together with other mathematicians, he discovered the location of Nazi troops on June 6, 1944, causing D-Day.

For the field of artificial intelligence, he is the pioneer of theory and continues to inspire scholars around the world in the search for Strong AI (a topic covered in the first episode of Inside Alana Podcast).

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Alan Turing's Machine

In the 1930s, Alan created a device that was able to write and interpret some numerical symbols. This machine was created even before the term "artificial intelligence" was coined, which happened in 1956, by John McCarthy, another scholar in the field.

At the time, he did not imagine what he was exploring, and today everyone is curious to know how Alan Turing's machine worked

His idea was to have a device that manipulates symbols according to a series of rules, that is, he already imagined something like today's computers.

At the same time, the mathematician began to think of a way to test a machine's intelligence level and the ability to imitate the human brain. Thus came the Turing Test, based on a competition called "the game of imitation”.

The Imitation Game

The Turing test was first mentioned in a 1950 study by the mathematician himself, where he questioned whether a computer would be able to fool a third of players.

The game follows the following rules:

  • 3 players named A, B, and C
  • They communicate only with written messages
  • Player C cannot see the other two and must find out who is the man and who is the woman
  • Player A is a man and must confuse player C to get him wrong
  • Player B is a woman and must induce player C to hit

In Turing's proposal, player A is replaced by a computer to determine the success of the machine compared to the results of man. 

The premise is that, if the computer has positive results close to those of man, it can be said that the computer has a certain level of intelligence. This theory of the Turing Test is still widely discussed and is part of the field of philosophy of artificial intelligence.

Poster do filme O jogo da Imitação que conta a história de Alan Turing

Turing's story inspired the film “The Imitation Game” which, despite its name, does not speak specifically of the mathematician's trajectory in the evolution of AI itself, but focuses on Alan's relevant participation in World War II.

Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine

Another contribution by Turing was the creation of a system for translating encrypted texts.

The aim of the system was to decipher the messages encrypted by the Enigma machine, which was used during the war by the Germans, to prevent the British from understanding communication.

The machine created by the team that Turing was part of was called Bombe, and it acted as follows to break the encryption:

  • Signal capture and identification
  • Definition of logic pattern for interpretation
  • Selection of contradictory information
  • Generation of messages
This was not the first machine of its kind, but it was a relevant work by Turing, which brought him even closer to the study of computers.

Evolution of Artificial Intelligence

AI has evolved a lot since Alan Turing's first thoughts about the possibility of creating a machine that thinks like a human, but we don't have that device yet.

On the other hand, proving once again to be someone far ahead of his time, Alan also envisioned the need to understand biological patterns to apply to the development of artificial intelligences. And he was right!

He mentioned, in one of his last articles, morphogenesis, an area of mathematical biology that studies the developmental patterns of living beings. At the time, he did not imagine that the study of biology would advance and that it would be common today to use techniques inspired by the theory of evolution and neuroanatomy (two branches of biology).

Turing was a genius, and whenever we talk about artificial intelligence, we have to talk about him.


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