Saturday, September 12, 2009

An Imperfect Past and a Forbidden Fruit

Go on and eat forbidden fruit
It's mighty sweet forbidden fruit
It's quite a treat forbidden fruit
Go ahead and bite it I bet you'd be delighted
Nina Simone at Newport 1960

Apples in the Apple
"An Imperfect Past and a Forbidden Fruit" - I refer of course to the life and death of Alan Turing (1912 - 1954), one of the greatest minds of his generation, who died by eating a poisoned apple.

The forbidden fruit? Turing had sexual relations with a man. His punishment? Prosecution for being a homosexual, the stripping of his security clearance, and chemical castration.

Turing is famous for his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during WWII, helping to create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. He is one of the founding fathers of computer science. He conceived the "Turing machine" and the "Turing Test" which measures the intelligence of computers.

He is now honored by the Turing reward given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery to "an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community". The award is currently sponsored by Intel and Google.

His favorite fairy tale was Snow White. Hence the poisoned apple???

The imperfect past? The British government's treatment of him. It is only now, over 50 years since his untimely death, that there has been an apology. Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins and other notable artists and scientists backed a Downing Street petition calling for a posthumous apology by the British government, for its treatment of him.

The apology was given. Two days ago.

You can see the petition at Number 10.

Ada Lovelace , Woodman, Tinman and Ironman, Sandman, Pebbleman, Stoneman, Snow White, dining philosophers, poisoned apples - these are not words we normally associate with computers. Yet the history of computer science weaves a complex tapestry and is populated with some of the finest and most creative minds of modern times. Far from being a dry science or craft, computing is a fascinating and compelling discipline. As Djikstra said at his address on the occasion of his Turing Award in 1972, "in their capacity as intellectual challenge, they [computers] are without precedent in the cultural history of mankind."

As well, working with them is a great way to earn a crust.

Woodman Tinman et al were versions of a programming language designed by committee, and named Ada after Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 - 1852), the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron. Ada is said to have written the first computer program - in the 19th century - a program for a computer envisaged by Ada Lovelace's lifelong friend, Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) - before it was built. She also predicted the application of computers to areas other than mathematics, such a the generation of music.

Perhaps the first person to recognise the truth of "garbage in, garbage out" Babbage is quoted as saying, 'On two occasions I have been asked, – "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.'

Then there's Dutch computer scientist Edsger Wybe Dijkstra (1930 - 2002) who refused to use a computer for his work, preferring a paper and fountain pen. He named his Volkswagen bus, "the Touring Machine", and on artificial intelligence said, "the question of whether computers can think is like the question of whether submarines can swim"

I stumbled into the field of computing by pure chance. I took computing 101 as an elective at Deakin University in 1980 as part of a Masters by course work.

And so it was that my third apple was Alan Turing's, lying half-eaten on the floor near his bed, lovelessly-laced with cyanide.

And my fourth? New York of course. My adopted and much loved city. The Big Apple.

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