On 15th July 2019, the new face of the Bank of England’s £50 note was revealed as renowned mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing. Turing was best-known for his pioneering computer and codebreaking skills during the Second World War.
Studying Mathematics at The University of Cambridge he was rewarded a first-class honours degree before going on to study at Princeton University where he obtained a PhD from the Department of Mathematics in 1938.
Turing spent many years of his short life figuring out ways in how to successfully create more ‘intelligent’ computer systems and is now widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.
“Can machines think? Because ‘thinking’ is difficult to define” – The Turing Test
At a time when the very first computers had only just been built Turing investigated the notion of machines being able to think. From this Turing ran multiple tests to examine a machines intelligent behaviour. He replaced humans with a computer running program designed to decipher whether individuals would be able to determine if it was a computer or human.
From this the idea was suggested that that if a person could not tell the difference between a human and a machine, the computer could be ‘thinking’ thus suggesting an element of artificial intelligence which had never been considered before.
Breaking the Enigma Code
Turing is also often referred to as a hero and responsible for saving many people’s lives.
Turing’s contribution to the computing world was immense, and he helped accelerate allied efforts to read Naval German messages during the war and played a vital role in the development of early computers.
Secretly, at Bletchley Park, Turing and his team of mathematicians successfully cracked the once-unbreakable cipher codes of the Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine, which helped shorten the Second World War by two years.
Back when Turing was at his best, he wasn’t rewarded or acknowledged for any of the work he had done. Instead of being recognised for being a genius, he was victimised for many years because of his homosexuality and was considered to be living as a ‘criminal’ until 1967. In 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency for his relationship with a man.
Due to a positive shift in attitudes as time went by, in 2013, he received a royal pardon for the conviction and the Bank of England said his legacy continued to have an impact on both society and science today.
Turing was one of many ‘heroes’ to be considered and shortlisted for this tribute. Among Turing were many fellow scientists such as Rosalind Franklin, Stephen Hawking and Ada Lovelace, however, the governor had the final decision.
“This is only a foretaste of what is to come and only the shadow of what is going to be”
~ Alan Turing, 11 June 1949