by Mike Lynch

Remember Alan Turing when we consider today’s young genius

Jun 20, 20125 mins
IT Leadership

As I write, I am preparing to attend an exhibition that celebrates the life and work of Alan Turing at London’s Science Museum.

For a mathematician like me, it is hard to put too fine a point on this: Alan Turing changed the course of history not once, but twice in a very short lifetime.

Turing’s work not only had significant impact onthe defeat of Nazism through his Enigma code-breaking, but his mathematical work is the basis of modern computing.

The modern world of iPads, Facebook and mobile phones are all based on his ideas.

His work is still the basis for much of the more fundamental research in artificial intelligence. But, like many geniuses, from Jesus to Van Gogh, he didn’t enjoy this degree of recognition in his lifetime.

While Turing’s work on computing might form the basis of modern technology, his personal life, and more importantly, society’s inability to accept his eccentricities, gives as much food for thought at this time as a pondering on the limits of Artificial Intelligence.

I have my own Turing anecdote: when I took my software company, Autonomy, public, the City wanted to see a traditional Chairman rather than the geeks that had created the software.

Eventually, we managed to recruit a suitable pillar of the establishment: a lawyer who was a QC.

One day, when touring our research lab, a young and typically fearless programmer walked up and said to the Chairman,

“So what do you think you know about software? How are you qualified for this job?”

At that point the Chairman replied, “I was once babysat by Alan Turing”.

A wave of respect descended over the software lab and there was never a reason to question his credentials again.

Such is the legendary status of Alan Turing.

One evening I was discussing Alan Turing with our lawyer Chairman and he produced something deeply poignant from his pocket.

His father, a Manchester solicitor, had defended Turing at a trial and his family had received a letter from Turing’s mother shortly after his death.

So sad to read, it was a thread through time recounting so unnecessary a death.

The loss due to him committing suicide using a cyanide-laced apple is perhaps a strong indicator of the price we can pay for our intolerances.

I would like to think that the harassment he suffered over his sexuality, generally credited as the cause of his death, is now an anachronism.

And yet, we still run the risk of failing the current generation of Turing’s by being narrow-minded in different ways.

Turing’s generation was unable to fully understand and accept his brilliance and we today must not fail the future golden talent that could revolutionise our technology industry and change the world as a result.

We can encourage a love of technology at an early age and promote an ICT education system that develops analytical minds that learn to create stuff and make things work using technology, largely through trial and error.

It is young people who are adapting the quickest of all to new technologies and, crucially, the practices they facilitate.

They tweet, download apps and buy online with astonishing agility and speed.

Government policy needs to give ICT teachers the freedom to move away from programme-based lessons and give them a chance to show pupils the real magic of technology — of the power it has to create, improve and entertain.

The UK has a wealth of untapped talent, but to grow the Turings of the future, we need to set the right educational ecosystem to allow young people to question our technological landscape, not just live in it.

Society’s narrow-mindedness failed Turing. We must not fail today’s students with limited school curricula.

Teaching children to pass exams so the school can score highly on league tables does not prepare Britain’s workforce for success.

Children and young students should be exposed to creative arts, to healthy competition and be encouraged to explore beyond the narrow confines of a national curriculum dreamt up by grey-suited middle-aged men in Whitehall.

Fundamental technologies that alter the way we communicate, live and work emerge from societies that applaud the pushing of boundaries and encourage free-thinking.

If we stifle imagination and creativity at an early age because we can’t score it on a league table, then we run as much risk of failing the Turings of today.

Alan Turing’s work led to many advances that have improved the lot of humanity, from modern media to healthcare.

Perhaps if he had lived in a more tolerant age he would have continued to produce yet more benefits for mankind.

So next time you see the Snow White movie’s poison apple scene rendered on a digital device spare a thought for the man who changed history forever and made that possible.

And just maybe, resist the urge to call your children inside to recite their prescribed poems and just let them play outside imagining they are on spaceship to Mars.

Limiting the boundaries of their imagination will not advance British science.