Unveiling Alan Turing

Today the Bank of England ‘unveiled’ the new plastic £50 note which features Alan Turing. The new design is not just a celebration of the well-known achievements of Alan Turing but gives us all a chance to reappraise his legacy.

Too often the story of Alan Turing is reduced to simplistic and nostalgic nonsense about saving lives in World War 2 and victimhood. This is both overblown and unnecessary, given the breadth and innovation of Alan Turing’s ideas. He’d be horrified if he knew his reputation had been hijacked in this way. Wouldn’t it be better – given how futuristic Alan’s ideas actually were – to be more forward-looking, and to redefine his legacy around his work?

To quote the great man himself:

We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

Alan Turing, 1950

Here are just two of the things which need to be done:

  • Although the person who consulted Alan Turing on what was probably the world’s first Ph.D. thesis in computer science was a woman, it is surprising and shocking that women are under-represented in tech subjects, and in computer science in particular. How can this be true 70 years after that Ph.D. which ought to have opened an entire career field for women?
  • Another waste of talent follows from the under-representation of school students of BAME origin in STEM subjects. It’s bad for them and it’s bad for everyone else if young people cannot develop in areas where they’re talented. Alan Turing himself took under his wing a young Jewish student from Nazi-dominated Europe in order to provide opportunities where they would otherwise have been snuffed out.

These are just two of the areas where Alan Turing would have wanted us to do better. In my new book, Reflections of Alan Turing, published by The History Press on 22 April, these themes are developed along with many more, all inspired by Alan Turing’s background and life.

Let’s stop exaggerating Alan’s role at Bletchley Park and suggesting he was a martyr, and let’s stop thinking of Alan Turing as a feelgood figure from the past. Instead let’s remind ourselves that he founded computer science and artificial intelligence, that he was one of the great mathematical logicians of the mid-twentieth century, and that his overlooked work on development of shape and patterns in living things is still awesome in its visual appeal (as well as being explored and validated in modern studies). If we can understand Alan Turing better we might find a more valid and relevant inspiration for ourselves.

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