50-Pound Note Features Alan Turing Who Served as WWII Codebreaker

turning was a codebreaker, philosopher, and influential contemporary of thought on intelligence

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Philosopher-scientist Alan Turing broke Nazi codes, aiding victory in World War II. He is known for developing “The Turing Test,” and had committed suicide in 1954 after losing his security clearances. England is now featuring his portrait on its 50-pound note.

Alan Turing statue
Alan Turing, who pioneered machine learning in the 1940s and 1950s, developed The Turing Test to determine whether a computer could exhibit human-like intelligence. Photo by Adrian Pink / Flickr / Public Domain

A public nomination process chose to honor Alan Turing as the face of the next 50-pound note in English paper currency. Among others, he joins Winston Churchill and Jane Austen as a historical British figure to be featured on its nationally circulated money.

Among his many achievements were breaking the Nazis’ self-proclaimed “unbreakable” cipher known as Enigma during World War II, an act that helped secure an Allied victory in the Atlantic, and developing the well-known Turing Test, which tests a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from a human.

In his video series The Great Ideas of Philosophy, the late Dr. Daniel Robinson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, explained Turing’s philosophical insight and legacy.

Intelligence in the Practical Sense

Alan Turing spent much of his life using an uncanny sense of empathy and abstract thinking to put himself into the mindsets of others. This is clear in The Turing Test, which asks two of the most frequent philosophical questions in human history: What does it mean to be an intelligent being and how should we understand human intelligence?

“What does it mean to say that man is a rational being, as such?” Dr. Robinson said. “Doesn’t it mean that we’re problem solvers? Isn’t that finally what’s at the bottom of being intelligent ought to mean—that you give us inputs of a certain kind and through the right kind of coding and computational procedure, we serve up outputs?”

According to Dr. Robinson, those who would define an intelligent being as something different are presented with a challenge by Turing. This is because when we refer to “intelligence,” we often mean some kind of problem-solving ability. However, calculators have computational problem-solving abilities; vending machines have mechanisms that enable them to tell the difference between coins in order to receive money and give the proper change. So there must be something else there.

To Be Human

“Turing wrote a famous article in the journal Mind in 1950 titled Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Dr. Robinson said. “There he raised the $64,000 question: Is there anything about us that is significantly different vis-a-vis a properly programmed computational device?

“Is there anything about us as rational, problem-solving beings that is, in principle, not expressible by a properly programmed, sufficiently powerful, computational device?”

The basis of the Turing Test is to, hypothetically, put a human being and something else behind curtains so an interrogator doesn’t know which entity is behind which curtain. Then both entities are asked questions that require problems to be solved, facts to be known, and so on. How do we tell which is human? And if a non-human entity like an artificial intelligence is indistinguishable from a human, on what basis do you grant rights to or discriminate against the artificial intelligence with regards to its humanity compared to the actual human?

Questions like these put Turing on the map as a philosopher and they cemented his legacy as someone who profoundly affected the way we approach computer programming in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily