Alan Turing: Mathematical Mechanist

I live just off of Bell Road outside of Newburgh, Indiana, a small town of 3,000 people. A mile down the street Bell Road intersects with Telephone Road not as a modern reminder of a technology belonging to bygone days, but as testimony that this technology, now more than a century and a quarter old, is still with us. In an age that prides itself on its digital devices and in which the computer now equals the telephone as a medium of communication, it is easy to forget the debt we owe to an era that industrialized the flow of information, that the light bulb, to pick a singular example, which is useful for upgrading visual information we might otherwise overlook, nonetheless remains the most prevalent of all modern day information technologies. Edison’s light bulb, of course, belongs to a different order of informational devices than the computer, but not so the telephone, not entirely anyway. Alan Turing, best known for his work on the Theory of Computation (1937), the Turing Machine (also 1937) and the Turing Test (1950), is often credited with being the father of computer science and the father of artificial intelligence. Less well-known to the casual reader but equally important is his work in computer engineering. The following lecture on the Automatic Computing Engine, or ACE, shows Turing in this different light, as a mechanist concerned with getting the greatest computational power from minimal hardware resources. Yet Turing’s work on mechanisms is often eclipsed by his thoughts on computability and his other theoretical interests. This is unfortunate for several reasons, one being that it obscures our picture of the historical trajectory of information technology, a second that it emphasizes a false dichotomy between “hardware” and “software” to which Turing himself did not ascribe but which has, nonetheless, confused researchers who study the nature of mind and intelligence for generations..
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