The Man Who Knew too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer is the title of a biography about a brilliant scientist with roots in Longford.
The children of Longford today take laptop computers, tablets, iPods and smartphones very much for granted. Most of them will eventually have a computer of their own as part of their daily work, and some may even end up working in the production of computer hardware and software.
By then they will have greater appreciation of the extraordinary advances that have been made in a relatively short time in the development of the general-purpose computer. They will probably know that Bill Gates was the founder and first chairman of Microsoft, and have possibly heard of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
But will any of them have heard of Alan Mathison Turing (1912-54), a leading pioneer in computer technology who laid the groundwork so that Bill, Larry, Sergey and their like could become fabulously and ridiculously wealthy?
Cartron Abbey on the Battery Road in Longford, a “Detached three-bay single-storey double-fronted villa, c. 1850” was the home of Alan’s grandmother.
His mother wrote that Sarah’s grandmother came from an aristocratic family. “It was her grandmother, (I think), a Miss Lindsay, belonging the family of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, who married a Mr. Crawford.”
During World War II, Alan worked for the GC&CS (Government Code and Cypher School) at the famous codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German cyphers and the result was that he and his colleagues were able to find the settings for the Germans’ Enigma Machine and crack its codes. In doing so, Turing and his team were credited with shortening the war by two years and possibly saving millions of lives.
After the war he helped develop the first modern digital computers and made his mark as a leading advocate of the notion that the brain is a computer and machines can think. A solitary, introspective man, he was quietly working at the University of Manchester when he was arrested for being a homosexual and forced to undergo a hormonal ‘cure’. Two years later he was found dead, and the verdict was that he had died by suicide, although others said that his death was accidental; some even said that his ‘suicide’ was staged because “he knew too much”.
Last year there were a number of events that marked Alan Turing’s centenary and his Irish connections. The Science Department at NUI Maynooth launched a new degree, uniting the three fields to which he contributed: computer science, mathematics and philosophy.
NUI computer science lecturer, Phil Maguire, wrote in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in the Irish Times on 23rd June last year: “We believe it to be the first undergraduate degree in computational thinking in the world, and the first ‘thinkers’ will start on the course in September.”
The degree builds on Turing’s legacy, with students being encouraged to contemplate and contribute towards the deep questions that engaged his mind: What is knowledge? What are the limits of what we can know? Could a form of artificial intelligence ever emulate the human mind?
And might one of those students be another Alan Turing from Longford who will seek to answer some of those big questions?