ger about the computer: The Internet
(by which I mean both the network
of networks and the application networks running on it) had become by
far the most important computational
artifact of our times, certainly the most
fascinating and worthy of scientific
scrutiny. And for me the Internet is
Alan Turing’s ultimate creation. That
our universe is now computational is a
direct consequence of Turing’s universal machine.
Let me explain.
It was fortunate that
Turing had created not
just his machine, but also
its famous universal model. One can wonder why,
among the other creators
of computational models
of his time, he bothered to
reach for universality. Perhaps he foresaw software.
More likely, he sought a
worthy of his acumen
(don’t many programmers
in our time come of age
through writing a compiler?) By making his universal machine so compelling
and graphic, he planted
universality into von Neumann’s head, and ultimately into the computers
as they came to be.
alan turIng By aIKon- 1, a researCh proJeCt Into art CoMputIng By patrICK tresset anD
freDerIC fol leyMarIe, hosteD at golDsMIths, unIVersIty of lonDon: WWW.aIKon-golD.CoM
But universality was a
minority opinion at that
time. The early dreamers
of computation, from Aiken and Atanasoff all the
way to Zuse, favored specialization. Arguably, universality and software were
inevitable, but we can only
speculate about the delays and setbacks their advent would have taken
Universality is crucial for many reasons that go beyond the software industry. Televisions are not universal,
and that is why it took six decades after
their invention for the technology to
take hold. In contrast, the Web spread
like wildfire all over the world immediately after Tim Berners-Lee came up
with the “click” in 1989, and that is because in 1989 millions of people had
computers on their desks, and those
computers were universal, thanks to
Alan, and therefore they could be easily
be made to click.
So, I thought that night, if through
this Rube Goldberg succession of ideas
the Internet is Turing’s creation, why
wouldn’t the Internet return the favor?
Why can’t a hacked-up SETI emerge
somewhere, somehow, that consti-
tutes Turing’s comeback to life? And
if I bring my hero back, why wouldn’t
I shower him with gifts of gratitude,
especially things he had missed back
then, a happy love life perhaps (after
obstacles are overcome, of course), or
even make him a great teacher, give
him a dedicated pupil, yeah, a Greek
man my age, perhaps, an archeolo-
gist pining for his unhappy love for
an American woman, a startup queen,
why not? When I was four years old I
happened to visit the island of Corfu
with my father the same summer when
Turing did. As the night went on, the
plot thickened. On the flight to Califor-
nia, I took a stab at chapter one—tak-
ing place, as it happens, in an airplane.
For two and a half years I wrote until
the book was finished.
Christos Papadimitriou ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is
the C. lester hogan professor of eeCs in the computer
science division at the university of California at Berkeley.
an earlier version of this memoir appears in Alan Turing:
His Work and Impact, edited by s. Barry Cooper and Jan
van leeuwen, elsevier science, 2012.
Copyright held by author.