Underneath Bishop’s Bridge Road, halfway between Sheldon Square and the entrance to Paddington Underground station, a cryptic message flashes at the half-oblivious passersby — “This is Alan speaking… Through this interface with time and space… I am the ghost in the universal machine…” It’s a 'Message from the Unseen World,' an art installation that uses artificial intelligence to light up a wall of words and phrases from one of Paddington’s most famous sons and father of the modern computer, Alan Turing. Whether by sheer coincidence or a twist of fate, less than 300 meters away from the ghostly transmission lies the Paddington headquarters of tech giant Microsoft, a company now at the forefront of artificial intelligence, the very technology Turing once helped to engineer.
Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of, who do the things no one can imagine.
Born in Maida Vale, Paddington on 23rd June 1912, Turing was a mathematical prodigy who studied in King’s College, Cambridge before moving on to the Government Code and Cypher School in 1939, the day after the UK declared war on Germany. At just 27 years of age, Turing made 'the bombe' — a cryptoanalytical device that ultimately broke the German Enigma code and helped shorten the Second World War by several years. In addition to secretly cracking 84,000 Enigma messages per month, Turing also broke the secret code of the U-boats that relentlessly attacked the North Atlantic convoys. Ultimately, his device allowed for the Allied invasion of Europe to take place in 1944 before Hitler could strengthen his defences in France. When WW2 ended, Turing transferred to the University of Manchester where he created essential concepts in modern computing, including key developments in artificial intelligence.
A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human.
Light-years ahead of his time, in 1950 general computers had just been built and the term 'artificial intelligence’ did not yet exist, but Turing was already asking the big questions — ‘Can machines think?’. In his published paper of the same name, he proposed a test called the ‘Imitation Game’, whereby an interrogator asked a variety of questions while a human and a computer, both unseen, answered them in a separate room. If the interrogator wasn’t able to distinguish the answers between human and machine, Turing believed the computer could be considered a ‘thinking machine’. “He invented the idea of software, essentially,” physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson told The Washington Post in 2015. “It’s software that’s really the important invention. We had computers before. They were mechanical devices. What we never had before was software. That’s the essential discontinuity: That a machine would actually decide what to do by itself.”
One day, ladies will take their computers for walks in the park and tell each other, ‘My little computer said such a funny thing this morning’…
Today we live in a world that perhaps even a visionary like Turing himself could never have predicted, thanks to extraordinary advances in technology and, in particular, artificial intelligence. When Microsoft relocated its headquarters to Turing’s birthplace of Paddington in 2016, history had truly come full circle. For a company that currently leads the way in applying artificial intelligence to analyse data, build apps and support interaction with its AI assistant Cortana, Turing’s native Paddington seemed destined to be the spiritual home of Microsoft. As of February 2019, the company boasts the most AI job openings at 1,964 positions, which equate to 36 percent of its total jobs on offer. “It still leads the way with some of the most innovative and thought-provoking technological inventions,” wrote HR News UK.
And it’s full steam ahead with the recent launch of the new HoloLens 2 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. An innovative holographic headset that uses a combination of AI, mixed reality and cutting edge hardware design, Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 has been dubbed ‘Minority Report in Real Life’ by British press. “You could be looking at a car or motorcycle to make some repairs and you’d have the instructions projected directly onto it,” wrote the Metro in February. “One day, we could all be working inside our own versions of the Minority Report” — without question, a technology that would make Turing himself proud, or at the very least, utterly fascinated.
We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
In recognition of the importance of his contributions to the tech industry, in 2016 Microsoft donated $5 million worth of Azure cloud computing resources to the Alan Turing Institute. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that the man himself never got the chance to see the advancements of the computer age due to his untimely death in 1954. Living in an era when homosexuality was still illegal, Turing was charged with gross indecency and only avoided jail by undertaking hormone therapy that acted as chemical castration. “As if he is like the universal computing machine,” author and journalist Walter Isaacson lamented to The Washington Post, “where if you change the program, you can change the outcome.” At age 41, Turing intentionally took a deadly bite of a cyanide-laced apple and the world lost a genius and a pioneer. And while the full extent of his contributions to tech and AI remained a mystery until the 1990s, Alan Turing’s legacy comes to life every time we use a smartphone or ask Cortana for directions.
"This is Alan speaking
We devised the Automatic Computing Engine
Capable of calculating anything
Quantified in an algorithm
And that was the basis of the future…"