THE FIRST HACKER AND HIS IMAGINARY MACHINE by Howard Rheingold
Computation, when it was finally invented, a century after
Babbage, did not come in the form of some new gadget in an inventor's
workshop or a scientist's laboratory. The very
possibility of building digital computers was given to the world in the form
of an esoteric paper in a mathematics journal in 1936. Nobody realized at
the time that this peculiar discovery in the obscure field of
metamathematics would eventually lead to a worldchanging technology,
although the young author, Alan Mathison
Turing, knew he was on the track of machines that could simulate the
human thought processes.
That mathematics paper was a pivotal point in the cultural history of
Western civilization. The first move in the intellectual game that resulted
in digital computers was also the last move in another game that had gone on
for millennia. In Egypt and Babylonia, where systems for measuring land and
forecasting the course of the stars originated, only the priests and their
chosen craftsmen were privileged to know the esoteric arts of reckoning.
During the flowering of Greek civilization into the fifth and sixth
centuries B.C., these protosciences were shaped into the mental tools known
as axiomatic systems.
In an axiomatic system you start with premises that are known to be true,
and rules that are known to be valid, in order to produce new statements
that are guaranteed to be true. Conclusions can be reached by manipulating
symbols according to sets of rules. Euclidean geometry is the classic
example of the kind of generally useful tools made possible by formal
axiomatic systems.
An axiomatic system is a tool for augmenting human thought. Except for
rare "lightning" calculators, people are not able to add two sixfigure
numbers in their head. Give virtually all people over the age of ten a piece
of paper and a pencil, however, and they'll tell you the answer in less than
a minute. The magic ingredient that makes a schoolchild into a calculating
machine is the kind of stepbystep recipe for performing a calculation that
is known as an algorithm. The reason we know such algorithms work is
because they are based on the formal system known as arithmetic, which we
know to be true.
What Turing's paper did, and what made
digital computers possible, resulted in the millennialong effort to reduce
the various formal systems to one basic system that underlies them
all. Scienceour civilization's preeminent system for gathering and
validating knowledgewas built on mathematics, which was in turn a logical
formalization of the primitive number theories of the Babylonians and the
Greeks. Computation was the unexpected result of
the attempt to prove that the mathematical truths could be reduced to
logical truths.
At the same time that our civilization's methods for predicting and
understanding the universe grew powerful as the result of these intellectual
systems (i.e., science, mathematics, and logic), a few people continued to
ask whether these same systems could be reduced to their basic components.
If all sciences, when they become advanced enough, can be reduced to
mathematical equations, is it possible to reduce mathematics to the most
fundamental level of logic?
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Since our certainty in the completeness and consistency of our knowledge
system could depend on whether such a reduction was possible, it was very
disconcerting to Western thinkers when evidence began to appear that there
were exceptions, anomalies, paradoxesholes in the structure of mathematics
that might prevent any such grand reduction of formal systems. Those two
intellectual queststhe effort to reduce mathematics to a fundamental,
formal symbol system, and the attempt to patch up the paradoxes that cropped
up during the pursuit of that grand reductionled directly but unexpectedly
to computation.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, mathematicians and
logicians were trying to formalize mathematics. David Hilbert and
John von Neumann set down the rules of formalism in the 1920s (as we shall
see in the next chapter). Before Hilbert and von Neumann, Alfred North
Whitehead and Bertrand Russell demonstrated in their Principia
Mathematica that some aspects of human reasoning could be formally
described, thus linking this awakened interest in mathematical logic to the
ideas of the longforgotten originator of the field, George Boole. The idea
of formal systems was of particular interest, because it appeared to
bridge the abstractions of mathematics and the mysteries of human thought.
A formal system is a rigidly defined kind of game that specifies rules
for manipulating tokens. The qualifications for making a formal system are
very much like the rules for any other game. To tell someone how to play a
game, and for the set of rules to qualify as a formal system, the same three
aspects of the game must be communicated  the nature of the tokens, a
description of the starting position (or the starting layout of the
"board"), and a listing of what moves are allowed in any given position.
Chess checkers, mathematics, and logic are examples of formal systems that
satisfy these criteria. By the 1930s, the effort to reduce mathematics to
logically secure foundations brought about several attempts to treat
arithmetic  the branch of mathematics concerned with operations on numbers
 as a formal system.
In 1936, at the age of twentyfour, Alan M.
Turing established himself as one of the greatest mathematical prodigies of
all time when he pointed out to his colleagues that it was possible to
perform computations in number theory by means of a machine  a machine
that embodied the rules of a formal system. Although the machine
itself didn't exist as a working model, Turing emphasized from the beginning
that such machines could actually be built. His finding was a milestone in
the effort to formalize mathematics and, at the same time, a watershed in
the history of computation.
In his brilliant solution to one of the key metamathematical problems
posed by the formalists, Alan Turing described
in precise mathematical terms how an automatic formal system with
extremely simple rules of operation could have very powerful
capabilities. An automatic formal system is a physical device which
automatically manipulates the tokens of a formal system according to the
system's rules. Turing's theoretical machine was both an example of his
theory of computation and a proof that a certain kind of computing machine
could, in fact, be constructed.
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When he brought mathematics and logic together in the form of a machine,
Turing made symbolprocessing systems possible. He proposed that the
vast majority of intellectual problems could be converted to the form "find
a number n such that . . . " Even more important than this
provocative statement connecting the abstractions of intellect with the more
concrete realm of numbers  an implication that still inspires the efforts
of artificial intelligence researchers  was Turing's recognition that the
numbers were more important as symbols in this case than as elements
of mathematical calculations.
One of Turing's greatest insights was his understanding, from the very
beginning, of something that the majority of the computer priesthood has yet
to understand  the fact that numbers are
only one possible way of interpreting the internal states of an automatic
formal system. Babbage's "patterns of action" were now formalized
with mathematical rigor. Turing's "states" provided the crucial metaphor for
bridging the power of human cognition and the capabilities of machines.
What, Turing asked, does a human symbol processor do when performing a
calculation? He decided that mental calculations consist of operations for
transforming the input numbers into a series of intermediate states
which progress from one to the next according to a fixed set of rules, until
an answer is found. Sometimes, people use pencil and paper to keep track of
the states of their calculations. The rules of mathematics require more
rigid definitions than those provided by the fussily described human states
of mind discussed by metaphysicians, so Turing concentrated on defining
these states in a way that was so clear and unambiguous that the description
could be used to command the operations of a machine.
Turing started with a precise description of
a formal system, in the form of "instruction tables" describing which moves
to make for every possible configuration of states in the system. He
then proved that the description of these instructions, the steps of formal
axiomatic system like logic, and the machine states that make up the "moves"
in an automatic formal system are all equivalent to one another. Such
matters as formal systems and Turing machines sound very far away from what
computers actually do, but in fact they underlie the entire technology of
digital computers  which wasn't to come into existence until over a decade
after Alan Turing published his epochal paper.
The process of computation was graphically depicted in Turing's paper
when he asked the reader to consider a device that can read and write simple
symbols on a paper tape that is divided into squares. The "reading/writing
head" can move in either direction along the tape, one square at a time, and
a control unit that directs the actions of the head can interpret simple
instructions about reading and writing symbols in squares. The single square
that is "scanned" or "read" at each stage is known as the active
square. Imagine that new sections can be added at either end of the
existing tape, so it is potentially infinite.
Suppose the symbols are "X" and "O". Suppose that the device can erase
either symbol when it reads it in the active square and replace it with the
other symbol (i.e., erase an X and replace it with an O, and vice versa).
The device also has the ability to move left or right, one square at a time,
according to instructions interpreted by the control unit. The instructions
cause a symbol to be erased, written, or left the same, depending on which
symbol is read.
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Any number of games can be constructed using these rules, but they would
not all necessarily be meaningful. One of the first things Turing
demonstrated was that some of the games constructed under these rules can be
very sophisticated, considering how crude and automatonlike the primitive
operations seem to be. The following example illustrates how this game can
be used to perform a simple calculation.
The rules of the game to be played by this Turing machine are simple:
Given a starting position in the form of a section of tape with some Xs and
Os on it, and a starting square indicated, the device is to perform the
actions dictated by a list of instructions and follows the succeeding
instructions one at a time until it reaches an instruction that forces it to
stop. (If there is no explicit instruction in the table of instructions for
a particular tape configuration, there is nothing that the machine can do
when it reaches that configuration, so it has to stop.)
Each instruction specifies a particular action to be performed if there
is a certain symbol on the active square at the time it is read. There are
four different actions; they are the only legal moves of this game. They
are:
An example of an instruction is: "If there is an X on the active square
replace it with O." This instruction causes the machine to perform the
second action listed above. In order to create a "game," we need to make a
list that specifies the number of the instruction that is being followed at
every step as well as the number of the instruction that is to be followed
next. That is like saying "The machine is now following (for example)
instruction seven, and the instruction to be followed next is (for example)
instruction eight."
Here is a series of instructions, given in coded form and the more
Englishlike translation. Taken together, these instructions constitute an
"instruction table" or a "program" that tells a Turing machine how to play a
certain kind off game:
1X02 
(Instruction #1: if an X is on the active square,
replace 

it with O, then execute instruction
#2.) 
2OR3 
(Instruction #2: if an O is on the active square, go
right 

one square and then execute instruction
#3.) 
3XR3 
(Instruction #3: if an X is on the active square, go
right 

one square and then execute instruction
#3; 
3OR4 
but if an O is on the active square, go right one
square 

and then execute instruction #4.) 
4XR4 
(Instruction #4: if an X is on the active square, go
right 

one square and then execute instruction
#4; 
4OX5 
but if an O is on the active square, replace it with
X and 

then execute instruction #5.) 
5XR5 
(Instruction #5: if an X is on the active square, go
right 

one square and then execute instruction
#5; 
5OX6 
but if an O is on the active square, replace it with
X and 

then execute instruction #6.) 
6XL6 
(Instruction #6: if an X is on the active square, go
left 

one square and then execute instruction
#6 
6OL7 
but if an O is on the active square, go left one
square and 

then execute instruction #7.) 
7XL8 
(Instruction #7: if an X is on the active square, go
left 

one square and then execute instruction
#8.) 
8XL8 
(Instruction #8: if an X is on the active square, go
left 

one square and then execute instruction
#8; 
8OR1 
but if an O is on the active square, go right one
square 

and then execute instruction
#1.) 
Note that if there is an O on the active square in instruction #1 or #7,
or if there is an X on the active square in instruction #2, the machine will
stop.
[ Top ]
In order to play the game (run the program) specified by the list of
instructions, one more thing must be provided: a starting tape
configuration. For our example, let us consider a tape with two Xs on it,
bounded on both sides by an infinite string of Os. The changing states of a
single tape are depicted here as a series of tape segments, one above the
other. The active square for each denoted by a capital X or O. When the
machine is started it will try to execute the first available instruction,
instruction #1. The following series of actions will then occur:
Instruction 
Tape 
What the Machine Does 
#1 
...ooXxooooooo... 
One (of two) Xs is erased. 
#2 
...ooOxooooooo... 




#3 
...oooXooooooo... 
Tape is scanned to the 
#3 
...oooxOoooooo... 
right. 
#4 
...oooxoOooooo... 

#5 
...oooxoXooooo... 
Two Xs are written. 
#5 
...oooxoxOoooo... 

#6 
...oooxoxXoooo... 




#6 
...oooxoXxoooo... 
Scanner returns to the 
#6 
...oooxOxxoooo... 
other original X. 
#7 
...oooXoXXoooo... 

#8 
...ooOxoxxoooo... 

#1 
...oooXoxxoooo... 




#2 
...oooOoxxoooo... 
This X is erased. 



#3 
...ooooOxxoooo... 
Scanner moves to the right 
#4 
...oooooXxoooo... 
of the two Xs that were 
#4 
...oooooxXoooo... 
written earlier. 
#4 
...oooooxxOooo... 




#5 
...oooooxxXooo... 
Two more Xs are written. 
#5 
...oooooxxxOoo... 

#6 
...oooooxxxXoo... 




#6 
...oooooxxXxoo... 
Scanner looks for any more 
#6 
...oooooxXxxoo... 
original Xs. 
#6 
...oooooXxxxoo... 

#6 
...ooooOxxxxoo... 




#7 
...oooOoxxxxoo... 
The machine stops because there is no 


instruction for #7 if O is being
scanned. 
This game may seem rather mechanical. The fact that it is mechanical was
one of the points Turing was trying to make. If you look at the starting
position, note that there are two adjacent Xs. Then look at the final
position and note that there are four Xs. If you were to use the same
instructions, but start with a tape that had five Xs, you would wind up with
ten Xs. This list of instructions in the specification for a calculating
procedure that will double the input and display the output. It can, in
fact, be done by a machine.
[ Top ]
In essence, every Turing machine moves marks from one position on a tape
to another position on a tape, in the way the procedure outlined above moved
Xs and Os from square to square. These days, the marks can be electronic
impulses in microcircuits, and the tape can be an array of memory locations
in a memory chip, but the essential idea is the same. Turing proved that his
hypothetical machine is an automated version of a formal system specified by
the starting position (the pattern of Os and Xs on the tape at the beginning
of the computation) and the rules (the instructions given by the instruction
tables). The moves of the game are the changing states of the machine that
correspond to the specified steps of the computation.
Turing then proved that for any formal
system, there exists a Turing machine that can be programmed to imitate
it. This kind of general formal system with the ability to
imitate any other formal system was what Turing was getting at. These
systems are now known as "universal Turing
machines." The theory was first stated in a paper with the forbidding
title "On Computable Numbers, with an application to the
Entscheidungsproblem."
The Turing Machine was a hypothetical device Turing invented on the way
to settling a critical question about the foundations of mathematics as a
formalized means of thinking. He showed that his
device could solve infinitely many problems, but that there are some
problems that cannot be solved because there is no way of predicting in
advance whether or when the machine is going to stop. Here is where
the parting of the ways between metamathematics and computation occurred.
Our simple example of a doubling program took only twentysix steps. But
there is no way of knowing whether or not other programs (which can be
direct translations of theorems in number theory) will ever stop. By proving
this, Turing made an equivalent point about all mechanical systems (i.e.,
systems in which the procedures are definite enough to be carried out by a
machine).
Turing and his colleagues ended the long search for a logically certain
basis underlying formal systems by making the shocking discovery that there
are a number of important features about formal systems about which we can
never be certain. Formal systems, by their very nature, have certain
inherent limitations. At this point, the theory of computation became
something more than an important branch of metamathematics, as the
properties of formal systems faded into the background and the properties of
machines emerged in a wholly unexpected and dramatic manner  because The way the universal Turing machine imitates other Turing machines is as
automatic as the way our doubling machine multiplies the input by two.
Assuming that the control unit of the device is capable of interpreting
simple instructions  something that had been a matter for toolmakers, not
mathematicians since Babbage's time  it is possible to encode a more
complex list of instructions describing various Turing machines and put them
onto the input tape, along with the starting position.
[ Top ]
Just as the instructions followed by the machine can be stated in English
(or German or French, etc.), or in an abbreviated form like "7XL8," they can
be encoded in an even more primitive form. A code can be devised, using the
same Xs and Os, that can uniquely represent every instruction and
instruction table (program). Both the instructions and the data can be put
onto the same tape. A universal Turing machine can then scan that coded tape
and perform the function specified in the code (doubling the number on the
data portion of the tape, in our example).
This code can be interpreted by a machine, a machine that
automatically manipulates the tokens, given a list of instructions
and a starting configuration. When the machine stops, you read the tape and
you get the output of the program. In this case, you put the number you want
to double in the starting configuration, and then let the machine
metaphorically clank away one square at a time, erasing and writing Os or
Xs. When the machine stops, you count the Xs in the final tape
configuration.
The list of instructions is what turns the universal Turing machine into
the doubling machine. Mechanically, there is no difference between the two
machines. The particular instructions described by the code are what the
universal Turing machine operates upon. If you can describe, in similarly
codable instructions, a machine for tripling, or extracting square roots, or
performing differential equations, then your basic, dumb old universal
Turing machine can imitate your tripling machine or square root
machine.
That ability to imitate other machines is
what led to computers. The numbers (or Xs and Os) on the tape aren't
that important. They are only symbols for states of a process  markers in
a "doubling game." The list of instructions (the program) is what enables
the machine to double the input number. The instructions, not the symbols
that keep track of the way they are carried out  the rules, not the
markers  are what make the Turing machine work. Universal Turing machines
are primarily symbol manipulators. And digital computers are
universal Turing machines.
It isn't easy to think of the rules of a game as a kind of machine. The
task is somewhat easier if you think about "mechanical processes" that are
so clearly and specifically defined that a machine can perform them by
referring to an instruction table. All universal
Turing machines are functionally identical devices for following the
program specified by an instruction table. The instruction tables can
differ, and they can turn the universal Turing machine into many different
kinds of machine. For this reason, the programs are sometimes called
"virtual machines."
The distinction between a universal Turing machine and the many different
Turing machines it is able to imitate is a direct analogy to digital
computers. Like universal Turing machines, all digital computers are
functionally identical. At the most basic level, every digital computer
operates in the way our doubling machine did with the squares and Os and Xs.
Instead of building a different physical machine to solve different
problems, it is more practical to describe to an instructionfollowing
machine different virtual machines (programs) that use this
onesquareatatime mechanical instructionfollowing process to solve
complicated problems through a pattern of simple operations.
[ Top ]
Following instructions is the nature of digital computers. The difference
between a computer calculator and a computer typewriter, for example, lies
in the instructions it follows  the coded description it is given of the
virtual machine it is meant to imitate in order to perform a task. Since
computers understand "bits" that can correspond to O and X, or 0 and 1, or
"on" and "off," you can use these symbols to write descriptions that turn
the general machine into the specific machine you want. That's what
programmers do. They think of machines people might want to use, and figure
out ways to describe those machines to general machines  computers, that
is.
It would be too timeconsuming to achieve anything significant in
programming if programmers had to spend all their time thinking of ways to
describe machines in strings of Os and Xs. The O and X code is similar to
what is now called machine language, and a relatively
small number of programmers are actually able to write programs in it. Assembly language, a close relative of machine
language except that is uses recognizable words instead of strings of Xs and
Os, is a lot more manageable than machine language, so that's what most
programmers use when they write video games or word processors. Assembly
language makes it easier to manipulate the information in the "squares" 
the memory cells of the computer  by using words instead of numbers. You
use the translation program described above, called an
assembler, to translate assembly language into machine
language.
Every different microprocessor (the actual silicon chip hardware at the
core of every modern computer) has a list of around a hundred primitive
machine language operations  known as "firmware"  wired
into it. When the assembler follows the instructions in the assembly
language programs, using machine language to talk to the microprocessor, the
virtual machine meets the actual machine, and the computer is able to
accomplish the specified task for the human who started the whole process.
Since you have to accomplish tasks in assembly language by telling the
computer very specifically where to find the information you want, when to
move it into an "active square" called an accumulator, and where to
store it when it is processed, writing anything complicated in assembly
language can be a chore  like writing a book with semaphore flags, or
measuring a city with a yardstick.
For example, to add two numbers in assembly language you have to specify
what the first number is and assign it to the accumulator, then you have to
specify the second number and instruct the machine to add it to the number
already in the accumulator. Then you have to specify where to store the
answer, and issue stepbystep instructions on how to send the answer to
your printer or monitor.
Obviously, it is easier to do the whole thing in a procedure like the one
in BASIC: You simply type something on the keyboard, like "PRINT 2 + 3," and
some part of the software takes care of accumulators and memory addresses.
Your printer prints out "5," or it is displayed on your monitor, and the
computer doesn't bother you with details about its internal operations.
At the core of every computer language is something very much like the
doubling machine. Since it is possible to describe machines that describe
machines, under the rules of the universal Turing machine game, it is
possible to write a machine language program that describes a machine that
can translate assembly language into machine language. Having done that,
this new tool can be used to create yet another level of communication that
is even more manageable than assembly language, by making a codelanguage
that is still closer to English.
[ Top ]
That last virtual machine  the Englishlike one  is called a
highlevel programming language. Highlevel doesn't mean that a
language is intellectually lofty, only that it us a virtual machine
interpreted by a lowerlevel machine, which in turn may be interpreted by an
even lower level machine, until you get to the lowest level of on and off
impulses that translate the Os and Xs into electronically readable form.
BASIC and FORTRAN and other languages that programmers work with are
actually virtual machines that are described to the computer by other
virtual machines equivalent to the assemblers mentioned above, known as
interpreters and compilers.
The first compiler, however, was not to be written until 1953, seventeen
years after Turing's theoretical paper was published in 1936. The emergence
of the digital computer, based on the principles of Turing's machine, was
stimulated by World War II, which was still four years in the future. In
1936, Claude Shannon had yet to discover that the algebra invented by George
Boole to formalize logical operations was identical with the mathematics
used to describe switching circuits. John von Neumann and his colleagues had
yet to devise the concept of stored programming. Norbert Wiener hadn't
formalized the description of feedback circuits in control systems. Several
crucial electronic developments were yet to come.
Although only a halfdozen metamathematicians thought about such things
during the 1930s, the notion of machines whose functions depend on the
descriptions of how they operate happened to have one realworld application
that suddenly became very important toward the end of the decade. In 1940,
the British government developed an intense interest in Turing's theories.
WWII
A topsecret project codenamed "Ultra," under the direction of
an intelligence officer codenamed "Intrepid," had captured and brought to
London the secret German cipher machine known as "Enigma." The machine
enabled the Nazi high command to send orders to field commanders in the form
of an uncrackable code. Even though they had the machine in their hands
British intelligence was still baffled by the encoding mechanism. Even the
best of the oldstyle cryptographers couldn't suggest a solution.
The British high command recruited brilliant mathematicians, engineers,
and logicians, inadvertently creating one of the seminal research groups in
the field that was to be known as artificial intelligence. Among them was
Donald Michie, then only twentytwo, who was later to become the leading
British machine intelligence researcher. Another very young colleague who
later distinguished himself was I. J. Good, a prankster who once wrote Her
Majesty the Queen suggesting that he be made peer of the realm, because then
his friends would be forced to remark, "Good Lord, here comes Lord Good,"
when they saw him coming.
The place known as Bletchley Park is far less
famous than Omaha Beach, but many historians contend that the European war
was won, in large part, in a closely guarded Victorian mansion in
Hertfordshire, England, by the group of thinkers who succeeded in breaking
the German code. The brilliant, young, unorthodox codecrackers were housed
near Bletchley Park while they performed their role in the topsecret
operation. One of the code breakers was twentyeightyearold Alan Turing.
Turing was eccentric, funloving, disheveled, painfully honest, erratic,
introspective, prodigiously and elegantly brilliant, and somewhat inept
socially. Turing was an early model of the
similar maladroit and analogously otherworldly computer hackers who
were to come later: He was a sloppy dresser and a passionate chessplayer,
fond of children's radio programs and dedicated to longdistance running.
(Sometimes he even timed himself with an alarm clock tied around his waist.)
Even one of his few intimate friends described his speech as "a shrill
stammer and crowing laugh which told upon the nerves even of his friends."
He never quite got the hang of automobiles, which was probably safer,
considering the way Turing's mind wandered far away from the realities of
the roadway. He preferred the battered bicycle of the Cambridge don. The
bicycle and his habit of running twenty or thirty miles to attend a meeting
were the objects of sundry anecdotes about "the Prof," as Turing was known
around Bletchley. He was once detained by the
local constable for bicycling around in a gas mask, which Truing claimed
alleviated his hay fever.
[ Top ]
Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park ended up solving the Enigma
enigma by devising a series of machines known as "bombes," "the Robinsons,"
and a culminating contraption known as "Colossus." Their purpose? To imitate
"Enigma," of course!
The Bletchley Park devices were by no means universal machines by
Turing's 1936 definition, but they did use important aspects of Turing's
ideas. Using highspeed devices for feeding instructions encoded on paper
tapes, and electrical circuitry for performing simple but tedious logical
operations upon coded messages, the decoding machines began operating in
1943. The machines enabled the British to crack Enigma's code, in part by
imitating crucial functions of the enemy coding machine.
The fact that these young academecians had broken the code was a secret
of unparalleled importance, perhaps the most closely kept secret of the war,
because the ability of the Bletchley machines to continue to successfully
decode German messages depended upon the Nazi high command's continuing
ignorance that their unbreakable code had been cracked.
Despite the importance of this work, early wartime bureaucracy and the
thickets of secrecy surrounding the project threatened to cancel the
incredible strategic advantage the 1943 Enigma breakthrough had handed the
Allies. Turing appealed directly to Winston Churchill, who gave the project
top priority. The codes continued to be cracked throughout the duration of
the war, and in 1944 and 1945 the valuable information was disguised in the
form of other kinds of intelligence, then relayed to British commanders in
the Atlantic.
The tide of the critical Uboat conflict was turned, and the invasion of
Europe became possible, largely because of Turing's success with the naval
version of the Enigma. The Germans never caught on, and Turing's esoteric
work in metamathematics turned out to have dramatically practical
applications after all. Because of the growing strategic significance of
advanced cryptanalysis methods in the cold war era, the project continued to
be held secret for decades after the war. After 1945, a very few people knew
that Turing had done something important for the war effort but nobody knew
exactly what it was, because he still wasn't allowed to allude to it.
His role at Bletchley wasn't Turing's only wartime contribution. He was
sent over to America, at a time when it was indeed dangerous to take a North
Atlantic cruise, to share crucial aspects of British cryptanalytic progress
with American intelligence and to lend his intelligence to several American
warrelated scientific projects.
It was during this American visit that Turing picked up practical
knowledge of electronics. Turing had first become acquainted with what were
then called "electronic valves" when he investigated the possibility of
using the exotic vacuumtube devices coming out of radar research to speed
up the massive informationprocessing tasks needed by the Bletchley
codebreakers. In America, Turing was involved in another hypersecret
project, this time involving voice encryption  what the spy novels
call "scramblers." Because of this work on the device that was codenamed
"Delilah," Turing learned his electronics from some of the best in the
business  the engineers at Bell Laboratories in New York (including one
named Claude Shannon, a prodigy of a different kind, who will enter the
story again).
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By the end of the war, the knowledge that electronic technology could be
used to speed up logical switching circuits, and the possibility of building
working models of Turing's universal machines, led His Majesty's government
to once again support an automatic calculating device. This time, it was not
called the "Analytical Engine," but the
"Automatic Computing Engine"  or ACE, as it became
known. At the end of World War II, despite the work in America of Mauchly and
Eckert (ENIAC's inventors), the British were in an excellent position to
win the race to build the first true electronic digital computer. But
unfortunately for Alan Turing, postwar computer research in Britain was not
pursued as aggressively and on the same scale as the American effort.
Turing, of course, was in the thick of the postwar computer development
effort, but not at the center, and certainly not in control. As it turned
out, his heroic and secret war work helped to make him the victim of
scientific politics, not their master. His reports on the hardware and
software design for ACE were ambitious, and if the machine he originally
envisioned had been constructed as soon as it was designed, it would have
put ENIAC to shame.
While a succession of other men took over the direction of the computer
projects at the National Physical Laboratory and at the University of
Manchester, Turing hovered at the periphery of the political power while he
put his mind to the actual construction of one of his longimaginary
universal machines. In this he was hampered by the attitude prevalent among
his peers that uppermiddleclass Cambridge theoreticians simply did not get
their hands dirty with "engineering." But rigid conformity to social
standards was not Alan's strong point. He forged ahead with what he knew was
important  the development of a science of software.
Programming
Turing's ideas about the proper approach to computer design
stressed the need to build computing capabilities into the program, not the
hardware. He was particularly interested in the
programming operations  or "coding," as it was already coming to be
called  by which truly interesting mathematical operations, and possibly
"thinking" itself, eventually might be simulated by an electronic computer.
And while Turing's first attempt at writing programming languages would be
considered crude by today's standards, his ideas were far more advanced than
the state of the hardware then available.
While his colleagues and the American team scrambled to put together the
most elementary models of electronic digital computers, Turing was already
looking far beyond the clumsy contraptions constructed in the late forties
and early fifties. His public talks and private conversations indicated a
strong belief that the cost of electronic technology would drop while its
power as a medium for computation would increase in the coming decades. He
also believed that the capabilities of these devices would quickly extend
beyond their original purposes.
Programs for doubling numbers or extracting square roots or breaking
codes are handy tools, but Turing was aware that calculation was only one of
the kinds of formal systems that could be imitated by a computational
device. In particular, he saw how the simple "instruction tables" of his
theoretical machines could become elements of a powerful grammar that the
machines could use to modify their own operations.
One innovation of Turing's stemmed
from the fact that computers based on Boolean logic operate only on input
that is in the form of binary numbers (i.e., numbers expressed in powers of
two, using only two symbols), while humans are used to writing numbers in
the decimal system (in which numbers are expressed in powers of ten, using
ten symbols. Turing was involved in the writing of instruction tables that
automatically converted humanwritten decimals to machinereadable
binary digits. If basic operations like addition, multiplication, and
decimaltobinary conversion could be fed to the machine in terms of
instruction tables, Turing saw that it would be possible to build up
heirarchies of such tables. The programmer would no longer have to
worry about writing each and every operational instruction, step by
repetitive step, and would thus be freed to write programs for more complex
operations.
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Turing wrote a proposal shortly after the end of the war in which he
discussed both the hardware and "coding" principles of his longhypothetical
machines. He foresaw that the creation of these instruction tables would
become particularly critical parts of the entire process, for he recognized
that the ultimate capabilities of computers would not always be strictly
limited by engineering considerations, but by considerations of what was not
yet known as "software."
Turing not only anticipated the fact that software engineering would end
up more difficult and timeconsuming than hardware engineering, but
anticipated the importance of what came to be known as "debugging":
Instruction tables will have to be made up by
mathematicians with computing experience and perhaps a certain
puzzlesolving ability. There will probably be a good deal of work of this
kind to be done, for every known process has got to be translated into
instruction table form at some stage. This work will go on whilst the
machine is being built, in order to avoid some delay between the delivery
of the machine and the production of the results. Delay there must be, due
to the virtually invisible snags, for up to a point it is better to let
the snags be there than to spend such time in design that there are none
(how many decades would this course take?). This process of constructing
instruction tables should be very fascinating. There is no real danger of
it ever becoming a drudge, for any processes that are quite mechanical may
be turned over to the machine itself.
Except for the almost equally advanced ideas of a
German inventor by the name of Konrad Zuse, which
were long unknown to British and American scientists,
Turing's postwar writings about the logical complexities and
mathematical challenges inherent in the construction of instruction tables
were the first significant steps in the art and science of computer
programming. Turing was fascinated with the intricacies of creating
coded instruction tables, but he was also interested in what might be done
with a truly sophisticated programming language. His original metamathetical
formalism had stemmed from his attempt to connect the process of human
thought to the structure of formal systems, and Turing was still intrigued
by the possibility that automatic formal systems  computers  might one
day emulate aspects of human reasoning.
The most profound questions Turing raised concerning the capabilities of
universal machines were centered around this hypothesized future ability of
computing engines to simulate human thought. If
machinery might someday help in creating its own programming, would
machinery ever be capable, even in principle, of performing activities that
resembled human thought? His 1936 paper was published in a
mathematical journal, but it eventually created the foundation of a whole
new field of investigation beyond the horizons of mathematics  computer
science. In 1950, Turing published another article that was to have profound
impact; the piece, more simply titled "Computing Machinery and
Intelligence," was published in the philosophical journal Mind.
In relatively few words, using tools no more
esoteric than common sense, and absolutely no mathematical formulas, Turing
provided the boldest subspecialty of computer science  the field of
artificial intelligence.
Despite the simplicity of Turing's hypothetical machine, the formal
description in the mathematics journal makes very heavy reading. The 1950
article, however, is worth reading by anyone interested in the issue of
artificial intelligence. The very first sentence still sounds as direct and
provocative as Turing undoubtedly intended it to be: "I propose to consider
the question 'Can machines think?' "
In typical Turing style, he began his consideration of deep AI issues by
describing  a game! He called this one "The Imitation Game," but history
knows it as the "Turing Test." Let us
begin, he wrote, by putting aside the question of machine intelligence and
consider a game played by three people  a man, a woman, and an
interrogator of either gender, who is located in a room apart from the other
two. The object of the game is to ask questions of the people in the other
room, and to eventually identify which one is the man and which is the woman
 on the basis of the answers alone. In order to disguise the appearance,
voice, and other sensory clues from the players, the interrogation takes
place over a teletype.
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Turing then asks us to substitute a machine for one of the unknown
players and make a new object for the game: This time, the interrogator is
to guess, on the basis of the teletyped conversation, which inhabitant of
the other room is a human being and which one is a machine. In describing
how such a conversation might go, Turing quoted a brief "specimen" of such a
dialog:
Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge. A:
Count me out on this one. I could never write poetry. Q: Add 44957 to
70764. A: (pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.
Q: Do you play chess? A: Yes. Q: I have K at my K1, and no
other pieces. You only have K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do
you play? A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) RR8 mate.
Note that if this dialog is with a machine, it is able to do faulty
arithmetic (39457 + 7064 does not equal 105621) and play decent chess
at the same time.
Having established his imitation game as the criterion for determining
whether or not a machine is intelligent, and before proceeding to consider
various objections to the idea of artificial intelligence, Turing explained
his own beliefs in the matter:
. . . I believe that in about fifty years' time
it will be possible to program computers, ... to make them play the
imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more
than 70 percent chance of making the right identification after five
minutes of questioning. The original question, "Can machines think?" I
believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I
believe that at the end of the century the use of words and educated
opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of
machines thinking without expecting it to be contradicted.
In the rest of the paper, Turing presented, then countered, a number of
principal objections to the possibility of artificial intelligence. The
titles Turing gave these objections reveal his whimsical streak "The
Theological Objection," "The 'Heads in the Sand' Objection," "The
Mathematical Objection," "Lady Lovelace's Objection," "The Argument from
Consciousness," "Arguments from the Continuity in the Nervous System," "The
Argument from Informality of Behavior," and "The Argument from Extrasensory
Perception."
In this paper, Turing made evident his knowledge of his intellectual
antecedents in this field by countering the objection raised by Ada in her
commentary, in which she stated the problem that is still cited by most
people in an argument about the possibility of machine intelligence: "The
Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do
whatever we know how to order it to perform. Turing pointed out that
Ada might have spoken differently if she had seen, as he had, evidence that
electronic equipment could be made to exhibit a primitive form of
"learning," by which programs would be able to eventually master tasks that
had never been specifically programmed, but which emerged from
trialanderror techniques that had been preprogrammed.
Turing's work in computing, mathematics, and other fields was cut short
by his tragic death in June, 1954, at the age of fortytwo. Besides being a
genius, Turing was also a homosexual. During the early 1950s, following the
defection of two homosexual spies to the Soviet Union, Great Britain was an
especially harsh environment for anyone caught engaging in prohibited sexual
acts  especially for someone who had something even more secret than radar
or the atomic bomb in his head. Turing was arrested and convicted of "gross
indecency," and sentenced to probation on the condition that he submit to
humiliating and physically debilitating female hormone injections. Turing's
war record was still too secret to even be mentioned in his defense.
Turing put up with the hormones and the public disgrace, and quietly
began to break ground for another cycle of brilliant work in the
mathematical foundations of biology  work that might have had even more
momentous consequences, if it had been completed, than his work with
computable numbers. For nearly two years after his arrest, during which time
the homophobic and "national security" pressures grew even stronger, Turing
worked with the ironic knowledge that he was being destroyed by the very
government his wartime work had been instrumental in preserving. In June,
1954, Alan Turing lay down on his bed, took a bite from an apple, dipped it
in cyanide, and bit again.
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Like Ada, Alan Turing's unconventionality was part of his undoing, and
like her he saw the software possibilities that stretched far beyond the
limits of the computing machinery available at the time. Like her, he died
too young.
Other wartime research projects and other brilliant mathematicians were
aware of Turing's work, particularly in the United States, where scientists
were suddenly emerging into the nuclear age as figures of power.
Militarysponsored researchanddevelopment teams on both sides of the
Atlantic continued to work on digital computers of their own. A few of these
independent research efforts grew out of Ballistics work. Others were
connected with the effort to build the first nuclear fission and fusion
bombs.
Over a hundred years had passed between Babbage and Turing. When an equally, perhaps even more gifted thinker happened upon the same
ideas Turing had been pursuing, it was no accident of history that Turing's
theoretical insights were converted to workable machinery. A theory of
computation is one very important step  but you simply cannot perform very
sophisticated computations in a decently short interval if you are
restricted to a box that chugs along a tape, erasing Os and writing Xs. The
next step in both software and hardware history was precipitated by the
thinking of another unique, probably indispensable figure in the history of
programming  John von Neumann.
Turing had worked with von Neumann before the war, at Princeton's
Institute for Advanced Study. Von Neumann wanted the young genius to stay on
with him, as his protégé and assistant, but Turing returned to Cambridge.
Von Neumann's profound understanding of the implications of Turing's work
later became a significant factor in the convergence of different lines of
research that led to the invention of the first digital computers.
It isn't often that the human race produces a polymath like von Neumann,
then sets him to work in the middle of the biggest crisis in human history.
Von Neumann was far more than an embellisher of
Turing's ideas  he built the bridge between the abstractions of
mathematicians and the practical concerns of the people who were trying to
create the first generation of electronic computers. He was a key
member of the team who designed the software for the first electronic
computer and who created the model for the physical architecture of
computers. He also added elegance and power to Turing's first steps towards
creating a true programming language.
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