Happy 100th Birthday Alan Turing


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by Jim Manley » Thu Jun 21, 2012 12:44 am
I'm surprised that none of the Brits mentioned this, so, leave it to a Yank to bring it up :D

We truly would either not have anywhere near what even the Pi can do today, or we wouldn't have any computing capability beyond mechanical calculating devices, were it not for Turing's seminal work on computing theory starting in the 1930s. It's estimated that his contributions helped shorten WW-II by as much as two years and saved possibly millions of lives, albeit there were tens of thousands of people at Bletchley Park working on breaking and decrypting Enigma (and many other) encrypted Axis military and government telegraphic messages. In addition, key work was done in Poland, before it was invaded in 1939, to document an Enigma machine and its vitally-important rotors (it was misdelivered to the old address of the German embassy, disassembled and documented, then reassembled and repackaged for delivery to the new embassy's address). Then, there was the parallel U.S. effort to break Japanese naval and diplomatic encryption systems.

There are some amazing mechanical Turing machines that can be found on YouBoob and other web sites made from everything from Legos to you-name-it. They faithfully reproduce Turing's design of a machine that can read, erase, and write symbols to any position along a tape (infinite in Turing's design, but, quite finite in the models), and act upon the read symbols to determine future actions. This YouBoob video of a working model using 35mm film, an erasable pen, a felt erasing wheel, a digital camera, some servos and stepper motors, and a microcontroller shows exactly how a Turing machine works:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3keLeMwfHY

Image

Obviously, we need to build one run by a Pi ... ;)
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by AndrewS » Thu Jun 21, 2012 1:01 am
Jim Manley wrote:I'm surprised that none of the Brits mentioned this, so, leave it to a Yank to bring it up :D

It was on the telly news last nght :P http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18528074

This YouBoob video of a working model using 35mm film, an erasable pen, a felt erasing wheel, a digital camera, some servos and stepper motors, and a microcontroller shows exactly how a Turing machine works: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3keLeMwfHY

Wow, that's beautifully done :D

Obviously, we need to build one run by a Pi ...

Probably worth linking to http://www.raspberrypi.org/archives/1146 again :)
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by scep » Sat Jun 23, 2012 8:18 am
Jim Manley wrote:I'm surprised that none of the Brits mentioned this, so, leave it to a Yank to bring it up :D


That's because it wasn't his birthday till today :D. So happy birthday Alan! The word "genius" seems to be used pretty lightly these days but Turing was a true genius and a very modest chap by all accounts.

The centenary year is actually a pretty big thing in the UK (relatively of course - it is only computing and maths after all and we wouldn't want it to get in the way of e.g. throwing pointy sticks down a field or trying to kick a ball between two posts ;)) and there's quite a few things going on throughout the year.

The Google doodle today is well worth a play with too...

[edit: globally announced this for the day - feel free to add to the thread, it's not a locked announcement :) ]
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by n3tw0rk5 » Sat Jun 23, 2012 11:42 am
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by Lorian » Sat Jun 23, 2012 11:46 am
I'm all for celebrating the lives of people, especially someone like Alan Turing who shaped much in my life, but I do hate the googlism of celebrating the "birthday" of people who are deceased.

Dear google, let's remember the dead and celebrate the birthdays of those living.

And if anyone has oppotunity to go to Bletchley Park, its well worth it, very interesting.
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by scep » Sat Jun 23, 2012 12:22 pm
Lorian wrote:... I do hate the googlism of celebrating the "birthday" of people who are deceased.
Nowt to do with Google - most people I know (myself included) who have close friends and relatives who are dead raise a glass to them on the day that they were born. If you have to pick an anniversary to celebrate the life of someone, the day of their birth is the most logical one to pick (as opposed to, say, the day that their balls dropped or the day they passed their driving test).

So happy birthday again Alan, even though you are dead! And thanks!
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by SN » Sat Jun 23, 2012 2:14 pm
Truly a genius of our time - sad what happened to him.

Permanent reminder in Manchester
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by rmm200 » Sat Jun 23, 2012 2:35 pm
Happy Birthday to deceased is too macabre for me... I picture skeletons with a birthday cake.

I will just raise a toast to the truly great ones who have gone before!

Alan was certainly one of the greats, and his birthday is a good time to remember.
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by Joefish » Sat Jun 23, 2012 4:08 pm
A great centenary, but there's always something bugging me about people building their own 'Turing Machines' that need a microcontroller to operate them. Surely the point is to do it with solid-state electronics or a mechanical system? Requiring a CPU and RAM to demonstrate the fundamental principles of the most basic processing device imaginable seems to me to miss the point by quite a wide mark!
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by Jim Manley » Mon Jun 25, 2012 4:49 pm
Joefish wrote:A great centenary, but there's always something bugging me about people building their own 'Turing Machines' that need a microcontroller to operate them. Surely the point is to do it with solid-state electronics or a mechanical system? Requiring a CPU and RAM to demonstrate the fundamental principles of the most basic processing device imaginable seems to me to miss the point by quite a wide mark!

Well, we're waiting ... where is your discrete electronics or mechanical version? A microcontroller uses solid-state electronics, BTW - you probably meant discrete electronics (individual components). Solid-state refers to the fact that the components use crystalline semiconductor materials, instead of inert gas-filled or evacuated components (i.e., vacuum tubes or, as our UK cousins say, "valves").

As for the microcontrollers, if you read closely, there is nothing in Turing's writings about how his machines were to be powered or the logic was to be carried out - just the results (e.g., reading, marking, and erasing symbols on a tape). As an operator, maintainer, and presenter of the only Babbage Difference Engine in the world that's still regularly operated (at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California - its older twin brother at the Science Museum in London is rarely operated, nowadays), I would love it if there were hand-cranked completely mechanical Turing machines. Now I know what I want to do during my dottering days of retirement, if the "economy" (or, more precisely, lack thereof these days) ever recovers sufficiently to ensure there will be any porridge left to keep us alive without having to dig ditches, much less star on a "reality" TV show doing all manner of embarrassing things.

Note that the symbols don't have to be ones and zeroes - they can be any kind of symbols, and they don't even have to be letters of an alphabet - they could be geometric shapes, such as triangles, squares, circles, etc. (think APL of the 1960s). The importance of Turing machines isn't the mechanics that drive them, it's the manipulation of symbols that's such a powerful idea, as we can marvel at today (and, IMNSHO, should do much more). Think about the awe-inspiring complex 3-D graphics that the Pi can produce as just another form of symbols, and the true power of Turing's ideas starts to become more apparent.

I'm sure Turing must have imagined large-scale computing in the form of high-performance computing systems with very large numbers of processing elements, but, I'm also certain he would be absolutely flabbergasted at what we can carry around in our pockets at continually-diminishing prices. They're no longer just supercomputers, since they're composed of upwards of millions of miniscule computers that are each immensely computationally powerful in their own right (witness the GPU in the Pi).

We're looking forward to seeing your discrete-component or mechanical Turing machine ... but, we won't be holding our breath ;)
The best things in life aren't things ... but, a Pi comes pretty darned close! :D
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by Jim JKla » Wed Jun 27, 2012 5:55 am
I suggest a true tribute to Alan would be a python program that ran on the RPi that demonstrated and explained the coputational task that was achieved at Bletchley Park.

Or how about we ask the guys at the Bletchley Park to give us some enigma encoded messages and set a RPi challenge to produce a RPi programme to decode it

If we are to celebrate lets also remember the electro mechanical achievment epitimised by the work of Tommy Flowers, MBE (1905-1998) the man who made Alan Turings work a real working machine.
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by leon_heller » Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:57 am
I wrote this account of Turing's childhood in St. Leonards for the local amateur radio club newsletter:

http://www.leonheller.com/Turing/Turing.html
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by Jim Manley » Wed Jun 27, 2012 5:18 pm
One of the most amazing achievements in artifact restoration/replacement ever was when the 80 ~ 90+ year old technicians and engineers who built, maintained, and/or operated the original bombes and Colossus (the first electronic digital computer to be used continuously in a production environment, decrypting Enigma-encrypted Nazi messages) rebuilt Colossus completely from their collective recollections from over 50 years earlier. All of the hardware and documentation were ordered destroyed by Churchill such that "nothing larger than a man's fist" survived, which today consists of a few of the paper tape idler wheels. Those kept tension on the paper tape punched with the characters of the encrypted messages and the limit on the speed of the paper tape (something like 30 inches per second) was determined by the tensile strength of the paper tape before it would break ... or catch fire from friction! The latter is not the kind of thing you want to have happen in a building filled with paper tape reels and chad (the tiny circles of paper punched from the tape).

If you want to see the Colossus replica in operation, visit Bletchley Park on a weekend, as that's the only time that it's demonstrated decrypting actual WW-II Nazi messages. However, if you want to spend quality time looking at everything and getting to talk to the expert guides at a more detailed level, include the preceding Friday or following Monday, and visit during Fall/Winter (outside of holiday periods) when the maddening crowds are more rare. Definitely a bucket list item if you have any interest in computing whatsoever.
The best things in life aren't things ... but, a Pi comes pretty darned close! :D
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." -- W.B. Yeats
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