Alan Turing presented the world of mathematical theory with the question: “Can machines think?” Which, according to some, allowed for the world of software as we know it to be born.
His contributions go beyond the world of computing—he was also a cryptologist, mathematician and logician—but the computer scientists of the world will gather this year to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday, had he not died at 41 in 1954.
Turing’s birthday—June 23, 1912—will be marked by worldwide celebrations. The Association for Computing Machinery is hosting its Turing Centenary Celebration on June 15 and 16 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The program includes individual talks by past A.M. Turing Award winners, as well as some panel events on Alan Turing: the individual, his work and the future of networked computing.
The Turing Award, first given in 1966, is handed out each year to one or more individuals for their contributions of a technical nature to the computing community. The award also includes a US$250,000 prize.
In speaking with past winners of the Turing Award and others who have used his research as a starting point for their own, it is clear that each has been touched by Turing’s research in a different way.
Stephen Wolfram, scientist, inventor, author and business leader, said Turing’s work on universal computation is perhaps the most important work in the field of computing over the last 100 years. Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, an application for complex computations; the author of “A New Kind of Science”; the creator of Wolfram Alpha, a free-form, natural-language search engine; and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research.
Science, Wolfram said, is built on layers, so it is hard to trace a single innovation back to the work of a single thought leader. But he said that Turing’s work can be shown to have influenced modern thought on a variety of computing topics. Turing, he said, motivated many to push past what was known.
Wolfram said Turing was the first to clearly understand and explain that software should be possible, that an individual machine could be programmed to do more than one computation.