OUPblog is celebrating Alan Turing’s 100th birthday with blog posts from our authors all this week. Look for “Turing : the irruption of Materialism into thought” by Paul Cockshott, “Alan Turing’s Cryptographic Legacy” by Keith M. Martin, “Turing’s Grand Unification” by Cristopher Moore and Stephan Mertens, and “Computers as authors and the Turing Test” by Kees van Deemter later this week. Today we begin with author Peter J. Bentley and a look at Turing’s contemporaries.
By Peter J. BentleyIt is perhaps inevitable that on the anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth we should wax lyrical about Turing’s great achievements, and the loss to the world following his premature death. Turing was a pioneer of theoretical computing. His ideas are still used to this day in our attempts to understand what we can and cannot compute. His achievements are tremendous in many aspects of mathematics, computing, and the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence. But our digitized world was not created by one man alone. Turing’s work was one of many key pioneers of his era. If only we could listen to the views of a direct contemporary of Turing, we might learn a more complete picture.
Perhaps surprisingly then, we are in luck. Sir Maurice Wilkes studied at Cambridge in the same course as Alan Turing, at the same time. Wilkes went on to become an enormously important pioneer in computing: building the first practical stored program computer in the world, and helping to create many designs for computer architecture and programming methods that are still used to this day. Unlike Turing, Wilkes lived 97 years. At an after-dinner speech at his old College in Cambridge in 1997 — 13 years before he died — Wilkes gave his typically honest views about Turing’s contribution. Today these views seem controversial, but they provide a fascinating insight into the history and rivalries within computer science.
Following his dinner Wilkes stood, notes in hand, looking at the dinner guests. He wasted no time, immediately talking about Turing:
“I found him reserved in manner, but the occasional encounters between Alan Turing and myself were entirely cordial. However on a technical level, of course I did not go along with his ideas about computer architecture, and I thought that the programming system that he introduced at Manchester University was bizarre in the extreme. I may have expressed my views rather strongly. Some admirers of Turing thought that perhaps I did not show the proper reverence for the great man. But why should I? We were exact contemporaries. We took the Tripos [a math degree in Cambridge] in the same year and as far as the class list was concerned we achieved exactly the same result. Jack Good [a colleague of Alan] said that Turing was a deep thinker rather than a fast thinker. His IQ was therefore not especially high. That description does I think apply very well to Turing. He was a colourful figure on the English computer scene in the early days of computing immediately after the Second World War. There are differing opinions about what his influence was.
“Turing’s work was of course a great contribution to the world of mathematics, but there is a question of exactly how it is related to the world of computing. There is no reference as far as I know that there might be a real machine as opposed to the one in the paper [“On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”]. Suppose someone said to you, ‘In order to design an electronic digital computer, we must first explain and illustrate the working of the Turing Machine.’ What would you think? There’s no connection at all. At least to those of us who built them!
“It raises the question of the status of theoretical work in the computing field. One view is that such work is really mathematics – its value is to be judged by mathematical standards. I am inclined to that view. On the other hand it can be, and is maintained by some, that there is a subject called theoretical computer science, which has its own standards and its own criteria. It would have been interesting to have had Turing’s view on this question. He might have been severe on some of the computer science theory that gets published these days, but of course we do not know.
“There are subjects for which there is a mathematical basis, for example Maxwell’s equations provide a real basis for radio engineering. If you were going to design a radio antenna, then you better know something about Maxwell’s theory. The reason why it is a theory is because Maxwell’s equations encapsulate with them very neatly physical laws. They do tell you something about what the world is like. You can’t say that the automata theory [which describes theoretical computing machines such as the Turing Machine, used by theoretical computer scientists] forms the basis for computer science. In fact I myself do not find it helpful to regard it in that light. I would suggest there are two things in this world: automata theory and computer science. These things are level; one is not more important than the other. They exist side by side and there are interesting connections between them.
“Of course Turing also had a great interest in whether machines could think. I was thrilled by the paper he wrote in Mind [“Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which described the Turing Test to measure the intelligence of computers]. I have long felt that Turing, would, if he had lived, have come back to this question and I would have liked to have seen his views. A great deal has been written on Artificial Intelligence. Not all of it is nonsense. It could be that Turing with his prestige, his great insight, and his wit, it is possible that, had he lived, he might have restrained some of the excesses, which you see in that area. But alas he did not.”
Wilkes then sat down, with a quick thank you to his applauding and somewhat amused audience.
Was this speech just sour grapes by Wilkes, who even to this day still has not received the credit he deserved for his own pioneering work? Did it sting to be the second recipient of the prestigious Alan Turing award in 1967 – perhaps he thought a Maurice Wilkes award might be just a little more special? Or did Wilkes have a point?
And how would Alan Turing have responded to this speech, had he heard of it? Perhaps it would be similar to the response he made to the ‘strong comments’ of Wilkes some 50 years earlier, on the subject of Wilkes’ designs for his pioneering computer. Turing said the work was, “much more in the American tradition of solving one’s difficulties with much equipment rather than thought.”
Dr. Peter J. Bentley has been called a creative maverick computer scientist. He is an Honorary Reader at the Department of Computer Science, University College London (UCL), Collaborating Professor at the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST), a contributing editor for WIRED UK, a consultant and a freelance writer. He has published approximately 200 scientific papers and is author of Digitized: the science of computers and how it shapes our world, which published this month. Read Peter’s previous post on “Three conversations with computers” or watch an interview with him.