Delighted to hear the Bank of England announce that mathematician, war hero and computer science pioneer Alan Turing will be pictured on a new £50 banknote.
Decades after his untimely death, Alan Turing continues to be an inspiring visionary. He was an outstanding mathematician and a pioneer of computer science and artificial intelligence. In 1936, at age 24, he published “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” a scholarly paper that is widely recognized as foundational to the field of computer science.
But he is best known as a World War II hero who devised code-breaking machines that ultimately helped the Allies defeat the Axis Powers.
This is the story that was dramatized in the Hollywood movie, “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing worked for the UK’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. He led “Hut 8,” a group responsible for cryptanalysis (deciphering coded messages). He devised new techniques to speed up the interpretation of German cipher, improving upon previous methods. This allowed the Allies to intercept and crack enemy messages, which may have shortened the war by two or three years and saved an estimated 14–21 million lives.
His memory also lives on in the Turing Test, which he developed after the war, in 1950. The idea was to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equal to or indistinguishable from that of a person. In this test, a person would communicate with both a machine and a human, and then try to determine which was which.
For decades, his legacy was downplayed. Because of societal factors against homosexuality, people in the UK government worried he posed a security risk. In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted under “gross indecency” laws, resulting in chemical castration and imprisonment. He died two years later by cyanide poisoning in what is believed to have been a suicide. In 2013, the British government issued a posthumous royal pardon and officially apologized for how he was treated during his lifetime.
Turing’s recognition on the £50 note is a much-deserved accolade for one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, said in a statement: “As the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as a war hero, Alan Turing’s contributions were far-ranging and path-breaking. Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand.”
More than just Turing’s face, the new currency bill design will also include his signature, a depiction of the code-breaking machine he built, and other significant imagery.
In this redesign, Turing replaces two great inventors of the Industrial Revolution: Matthew Boulton and James Watt, creators of the Boulton & Watt steam engines. These engines made automation of factories and mills possible. Boulton also applied modern techniques to the minting of coins, while Watt developed the concept of horsepower and is the namesake of the international unit of power: the watt. It seems therefore fitting that Alan Turing will replace them, because today his innovations, his “engine,” and his inventions form a foundation upon which we automate business processes, in the midst of what some economists are calling “the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”