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crypto and public policy

Honoring True Genius: Alan Turing

Filed under: General — June 8, 2004 @ 11:36 am

50 years ago today, Alan Turing killed himself by eating an apple he had previously laced with cyanide. It’s difficult to overestimate his contributions or the tragic circumstances surrounding his death.

Alan Turing conceived of and designed the first digital computer. He explored the theoretical boundaries of what a computer would and wouldn’t be able to do, before any was even built. That alone would make him one of the brightest minds of the 20th century. He devised a cryptanalytic technique which broke the Enigma cipher used by the Germans during WWII. This breakthrough gave the Allies a significant intelligence lead in the war, allowing them to mislead the Germans as to the location of D-Day. There are many factors that contributed to the Allies’ victory in WWII, and Turing’s contribution is a crucial, often overlooked element. After WWII, Turing turned to “intelligent machinery,” the first work in the field of Artificial Intelligence.

Why did Alan Turing kill himself? Because he was gay and being gay was illegal in Britain in the 1950s. He was forced to undergo hormone treatment. He was forced out of his job with British intelligence. He gained weight. He became depressed. Why the cyanide-laced apple? Because the setup allowed his mother to believe that his death was an accident, a scientific experiment gone wrong.

That our modern society caused such a brilliant man to suffer such deep, undeserved humiliation is simply tragic. The loss to humanity is larger than most imagine. Alan Turing died at age 42.

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