Remembering the Life that Changed the Future

Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game

Sixty years after his death, Alan Turing’s innovations—and the controversy surrounding him—remain relevant.

By Peter Bjel.

His innovations in solving mathematical problems brought about the earliest form of computers, and after more than sixty years, the world is finally willing to give Alan Turing’s life and work a hearing. At his death in June 1954, his accomplishments in mathematics, code-breaking, voice encryption, computing, and artificial intelligence were overshadowed by an earlier conviction under antiquated, homophobic laws for several counts of “gross indecency”. As an openly gay man living and working in Britain at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in that country, some believe that Turing was lucky to have escaped unscathed for as long as he did.

Why does Turing still matter? Living memories of the Second World War may be fading, but Turing played a vital role in the defeat of fascism in Europe. More broadly, his legacies live on in all realms that use and are shaped by computers and technology. After WWII, he refocused his efforts from code-breaking to computer technology and even artificial intelligence. Persecuted for the last two years off his life for his orientation, Turing could have been an even greater pioneer had he not died in 1954 in what was most likely a suicide.

The rehabilitation of his image took nearly sixty years. In September 2009—just months after the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Normandy landings—British Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid tribute to Turing’s memory and issued a posthumous apology. “It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different,” he said. “The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.”

This was just the start. In December 2013, on request from Britain’s Justice Minister Chris Grayling, Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous royal pardon for the crimes he was charged with in 1952. Two years earlier, an e-petition had been signed by more than 34,000 people demanding …

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