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Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing

Juliet Floyd and Alisa Bokulich, editors
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science 324
[Reviewed by
David S. Mazel
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There is something amazing about mathematicians and scientists whose work lives on after them. Perhaps the best example is Albert Einstein, whose theory of gravity was experimentally verified with the discovery of gravity waves recently. One physicist told me it’s unheard of to have a theory undergo tests a hundred years after it was postulated. Yet, that’s what happened with Einstein and gravity.

While not on the same scale as gravity, we still see Alan Turing’s theory of artificial intelligence undergoing experiments and investigations. Turing described his Imitation Game in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950. Turing was the subject of a recently made movie: The Imitation Game.

Just yesterday a physicist friend sent me a paper about the Turing Test. Turing’s work lives on. In this case, researchers searched for a one word Turing test, not a conversation where the subject has to tell if he is talking with a person or a computer. Still, I was taken aback that 68 years after his original paper, Turing’s ideas are still fertile ground for research.

For many of us, this is where our understanding of Turing’s work might end. But Alan Turing was not a “one and done” researcher by any stretch. His work spanned the realm of mathematics and science. Floyd and Bokulich have given us a series of papers written by renowned scientists that tell a broader and in-depth story of the other facets of Turing’s work.

In this book you’ll find Turing’s work in pure mathematics. I have to confess I didn’t follow that paper so well. Still, to read through how much of set theory comes into computability and mathematics was to be exposed to a new dimension of thinking. I am sure other readers will find these papers accessible and informative.

The paper on encryption, while elementary by today’s standards with modern computers running fast algorithms, is a fascinating look at what people were trying just a few decades ago. To see that Turing was involved in voice coding was to learn something new. In fact, this paper on voice encryption is excellent as an historical look at the state of art back then.

The other day, another friend but this one is not a physicist, told me how he used analog spectral filters to attempt word recognition several decades ago. While the results were less than stellar for him, we see the same success (or lack of it) in the voice encryption of Turing’s times. Yet to read about the work is to see not just what people tried, but just how far we have come in a short time, see Figure 1 from the text.

Figure 1: Encryption required 50 tons of computing in 1943 to 5-pounds of computing in 2000. Alan Turing's work with encryption is detailed in this book.


Each paper is self-contained with references and notes. The level of background needed varies from paper to paper. So rather than read this book from front to back, you may find it better to skip around. I read it linearly and would not recommend that. I do, however, recommend this book as a way to learn more Turing’s work beyond just the Turing test.

David S. Mazel is a practicing engineer in Washington, DC. He welcomes your thoughts and feedback. He can be reached at mazeld at gmail dot com.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.