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Historical Spotlight: Alan Turing

80 years ago, in 1939, Alan Turing began work on the code-breaking system that would eventually prove key in helping Britain survive the German submarine threat in the Atlantic.

Last month, the Turing Award in computer science prize (sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Computing”) was given to three researchers, Yann LeCunn, Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio for their work on deep learning.

Turing, a pioneer in computer science, proposed the terms of what became known as the “Turing Test,” in which a computer engaged in blinded, text-based conversation with humans. Algorithms that produced conversations indistinguishable from those of humans would be deemed to have passed the test. One of the better performing algorithms in this respect replicated the psychiatrist’s trick of parroting back to the interlocutor the same thing they just said, perhaps as a question or a slight modification of phrasing. Another success was the technique of remaining virtually silent (this was discovered during a malfunction). Obviously, neither of these approaches did much to advance the progress of artificial intelligence. Turing, who was gay, was convicted of “gross indecency” in the UK in 1952 and forced to undergo chemical treatments to reduce libido. He committed suicide the following year.