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Alan Turing: How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Defence Engineering

  • by: Conor McKeon
  • On: 23, Oct 2017
3 min read

After attending the Machina Summit, VHR reflects on the life of Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence. 

How Alan Turing Revolutionised Defence Engineering:

Alan Turing is considered the father of both theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, and as evidenced by the hugely acclaimed 2014 film The Imitation Game, his popular theories are still relevant to the Engineering innovations of today.

Defence Engineering in World War II

A genius from childhood, Alan Turing was reading Einstein’s Theory of Relativity from an early age. He studied at Cambridge and in 1936 published 'On Computable Numbers' to put forward the idea of a universal machine: the first ever computer. As the world was on the verge of the largest war in history, Turing would have the chance to put his revolutionary ideas into practice.

During World War II, a conflict where intelligence, technology, and industrial might was a main concern for both sides, defence engineering was paramount around the world. In the UK, Alan Turing arrived at Bletchley Park’s Government Code & Cypher School in 1939 with a mission: to break Enigma, the complex cypher machine that encrypted Germany’s military communications. Enigma’s settings were changed daily, making any progress at GCCS completely obsolete and useless by midnight. Nevertheless, Turing vowed to break the code. For the next 2 years, Alan Turing worked with British mathematicians and inventors to break Enigma.

Finally in 1941, they developed the Turing Bombe: the machine that regularly broke Enigma encryptions, providing the British Army with the priceless advantage of knowing all enemy movements in advance. During World War II Alan Turing also developed technology to encrypt and decode spoken phone conversations. His contributions were essential to British victory and without his Defence Engineering innovations, the outcome of the War may have looked very different. 

After the end of World War II, Alan Turing started working at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) where he developed his idea for an ‘electronic brain’. In 1946 he presented his design for the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) which is considered the first detailed design of a stored-program computer. He then studied the similarities between machine and human thought in Computing Machinery and Intelligence: his most famous work and the foundations for Artificial Intelligence. 

Alan Turing’s paper also included the Turing Test – which determines if a machine can be considered AI or not – still influential today and subject to constant debate among Defence Engineering specialists. In fact, all of us face the Turing Test every day: every time we are asked to enter a CAPTCHA on a website we are using, the CAPTCHA test will identify a human being from a computer system. Turing’s legacy has evolved beyond Artificial Intelligence. His genius is said to have shortened the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives. Alan Turing’s importance to the technological advancement of Defence Engineering during World War II cannot be underestimated. 

Read about other historical figures in engineering: Edith Clarke, Ada Lovelace, and Leonardo Da Vinci.

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