Feature

Alan Turing: How a Gay Man Revolutionized Technology

By Catherine Basil

Computer science, mathematical biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence as we know them today would not exist without the great contributions of renowned mathematician and scientist Alan Turing, who was also a member of the LGBTQ community.

Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Turing took an interest in math and science from a young age. Pursuing his passion, Turing enrolled in King’s College and eventually moved on to receive his Ph.D. from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. He then returned to Cambridge and took a position at the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). This was the start of Turing’s revolutionary discoveries and developments in computer science, mathematical biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. 

During his time, mathematicians believed that the most effective method for solving a problem was if it could be worked by rote, or memorization through repetition. Since this was a widely accepted belief, mathematicians sought to find an algorithm that could effectively solve all problems by determining which statements were universally valid. This search for an algorithm that could do so was known as the Entscheidungsproblem. Turing worked alongside Alonzo Church to establish that there was no resolution to the Entscheidungsproblem because there is no algorithm that would determine the validity of every input in an effective manner. 

Turing also played a significant role in the deciphering of German Enigma, an encrypted signal in World War 2. He participated in wartime code-breaking and made many advances in cryptanalysis. Turing moved on to lead the design work for the Automatic Computing Engineer and held various high-ranking positions in mathematics and computing at the University of Manchester. 

Though the discoveries and work of Alan Turing were revolutionary, homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom, so upon the discovery of his sexuality, Turing was arrested and forced to choose between temporary probation and hormonal treatment, or imprisonment. Turing chose to take the hormones and it eventually left him impotent. Because of his conviction, he was barred from continuing his work at the GCCS and died of suicide on June 7, 1954. In 2009, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for Turing’s conviction, and many members of the LGBTQ community that had been wrongfully convicted were posthumously pardoned.

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