Alan Turing: Codebreaker and AI Pioneer
published: Dec. 16, 2011, recorded: November 2006, views: 6199
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The code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, which helped save Britain from Nazi Germany, qualifies as one of the greatest stories of World War II, and the misunderstood genius, Alan Turing, stands at the center of this tale. Perhaps no one understands Turing’s role during this period -- and his larger impact on mathematics and computing -- like B. Jack Copeland. In this lecture, Copeland contends that Turing should be celebrated as the father of artificial intelligence.
He dates the origins of AI “to the dark days in 1940, 1941” when Turing and fellow code-breakers were pitted against the Nazi code machine Enigma. Copeland describes how Turing broke the previously inviolable indicator system of Enigma, and helped design electromechanical machines to read thousands of German radio intercepts. These devices employed heuristic searching, which is now a central idea of AI. They found the right answer “often enough and fast enough to be read in real time.” Without such machines, German U-boats would have decimated the North Atlantic convoys providing a lifeline to Britain.
Copeland notes that Turing was hooked on this idea of heuristic problem solving, and that he speculated on building sophisticated machines by “making use of guided search.” Well before the breakout of war, Turing had conceived of a general computing machine that stored programs in memory. The world’s first large-scale, electronic computer, Colossus was used at Bletchley to break other Nazi codes, and Turing found additional inspiration for pursuing ideas of machine intelligence. “Nowadays when nearly everyone owns the physical realization of a universal Turing machine, Turing’s idea of a one-stop shop computing machine is apt to seem as obvious as the wheel,” says Copeland. But in 1936, engineers “thought in terms of building specific machines for particular purposes.” Turing’s idea was revolutionary.
After the war, Turing joined the National Physical Laboratory and developed the schematics for an Automatic Computing Engine, intended as the first electronic stored-program general-purpose digital computer. AI was central to his vision, believes Copeland. He described this project as “building a brain.” Turing speculated about constructing networks of unorganized, artificial neurons that could be trained to carry out particular tasks. He also published an account of the Turing Test, a method for determining whether a computer “thinks.” Finally, Copeland defends the Turing Test against its many detractors, and predicts that “the probability of AI getting its act together in 50 years to produce a machine that can pass the Turing Test is pretty good.”
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