Monday, March 29, 2010

A Rather Literal Turing Machine

Alan Turing was a hell of a guy.  He didn't quite invent the computer, but pretty close.  He proved that a simple language of zeros and ones, a bunch of address locations,  a writer, a reader and an eraser could calculate any computable function.  The idea that the instructions to manipulate data, and the data itself could be all jumbled together as long as you kept track of the addresses are at the heart of the thing I'm typing on right now.

Back when I was a wide eyed undergraduate taking Daniel Dennett's Philosophy of Mind class, I got introduced to the idea of the Universal Turing Machine.  It was a machine so powerful, it might be capable of intelligence or even consciousness.  And yet it was profoundly knowable.  For a Cognitive Science major, that was pretty mind blowing, since the minds we are all used to interacting with are profoundly difficult to understand.  Alan even came up with a criteria for measuring artificial intelligence, the Turing Test.  Oh yeah, he also pretty much won World War II, but that's another story.  

It was only after reading Alan's biography that I realized just how persecuted he was for being gay.  He was, in fact, found guilty, in a court of law, of being homosexual, and was chemically castrated.  He took his own life two years later, at the age of 41.  It was so egregious that last year Gordon Brown publicly apologized, 55 years after his tragic death.  

But his story started with a roll of tape, two characters, a pen, an eraser and an eye.  And it was weirdly moving for me to see the machine in person, after seeing it my minds eye all these years.

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