Two cents blog

Who the hell is Alan Turing?

by Paul Cornwell on 10 May 2018

I got hooked on HBO’s Westworld TV show recently and I’m now eagerly awaiting the roll out of season two.

In the show one of the key characters, played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins, refers to Alan Turing. He claims that the ‘hosts’ in Westworld passed the Turing Test within a year.

And there’s the 2014 movie called The Imitation Game about Alan Turing.

So, who is Alan Turing and what’s he got to do with anything?

In 1939, the newly created British Intelligence agency MI6 recruited the brilliant, but eccentric, Cambridge mathematics alumnus Alan Turing to crack German military codes during World War II using math, engineering and still to be invented computer science.

Turing employed his skills as a mathematician, logician and cryptographer to crack the Nazi Enigma code, which is credited with giving the Allies the edge they needed to win the war in Europe.

His work is also recognised as leading to the creation of the computer via The Turing Machine he created. His work on theoretical computer science provided a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation.

Despite being incredible achievements, the fact that Alan Turing helped win World War II and invented computer science and the computer, may not turn out to be his best work.

You see, the reason the Turing Test is referred to in Westworld is that back in 1948/49, when Turing was working at Victoria University in Manchester at the Deputy Director of the Computing Machine Laboratory, he worked on projects that addressed the issue of artificial intelligence and proposed an experiment that became known as the Turing Test in an attempt to define a standard for a machine to be called ‘intelligent’.

The idea was that if a computer could be said to ‘think’ – if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human being.

Turing’s idea was simple: at some point, a machine may give such intelligible and human-like answers that we cannot tell the difference between man and machine.

And nearly 70 years later the Turing Test, or variations of it, are still used as a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

And with the rise of Artificial Intelligence, or ‘AI,’ how much of our new technologies stack up against the Turing Test?

I read a blog that gave an example of asking a machine, “How did you like the game yesterday?” and if the machine answered, “Oh, you mean the basketball. I wasn’t watching – I’m not really a basketball fan,” the answer may be judged by most observers to be human-like.

But actually, this is in stark contrast to answers given by today’s intelligent assistants such as Siri, Google Home, Alexa etc.  The author asked one of these assistants the exact same question, “How did you like the game yesterday?” and the result was an internet search that delivered links to the TV show Game of Thrones. Clearly, this response isn’t human.

The machine isn’t smart enough to understand cultural linguistics and to contextualise a question to respond to, as a human assistant would.

But AI is improving exponentially and we will soon see very human-like responses from machines which will pass the Turing Test with flying colours.

Overnight we saw that Google has shown off a future feature of its voice assistant – the ability to make an appointment by phone for you.


The technology was unveiled at the company’s annual developers’ conference in Mountain View, California.

The Google Duplex project, as it’s called, is just another big step towards computers becoming more human-like.

This incredible technology is going to dramatically change our world.  And the way this will impact companies, their service models, products and marketing is game-changing.

It’s all very exciting.

Imagine what Alan Turing would think.


Paul Cornwell is a Managing Director at BCM


- Dave McCaughan on May 10

nice on paul ... good little background piece ... we should talk AI and things some time again when I am in Brissie nextt

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