“He dared to stray from the beaten path”

Jos Uiterwijk inspired by Alan Turing

27-11-2014

Englishman Alan Turing is the originator of everything that Jos Uiterwijk, senior lecturer at the Department of Knowledge Engineering, works with every day. He was one of the founders of modern information science and artificial intelligence. In addition he is known for cracking the Enigma code in the Second World War, and the machine and test that were given his name.

Turing (1912-1954) died long before Uiterwijk started studying, but this Englishman nevertheless influenced his career. “I am originally a chemist. I went to do a PhD in theoretical chemistry in Twente in 1984. While I was there, I decided to also take up information science and for the first time I came in contact with Turing’s mental legacy. I found it so powerfully interesting. He dared to stray from the beaten track. That controversiality appealed to me. When I came to a point when I had to choose between either continuing on with chemistry or with information science, it was his publications that helped me make the choice.”

Turing was well ahead of his time. In the nineteen-thirties he was dealing with the question ‘whether machines can think?’. “A question that was unheard of at that time. People were not open to that. The brain couldn’t be captured in a mathematical formula, could it? A machine can do what you put into it. He was also the first to propose that computer games were the research domain for artificial intelligence, a field in which I have been doing research since 1990. Later on, people really started to appreciate his work and the Universal Turing machine became the basis for the modern computer. We now find self-learning programmes normal.”

Turing developed the Turing Test in order to see if computers could think. This is where a jury asks two candidates, who cannot be seen, a number of questions. One is a computer, the other is a human. If the jury cannot determine on the basis of the answers, which one is the computer, then the test has been successful. “This has not happened up until now, but we are getting closer and closer. If the questions focus on a specific topic, the jury can no longer see the difference between humans and machines. Turing thought that this would happen approximately in the year 2000. I think we should be successful within ten to fifteen years, so he wasn’t that far off.”

Turing didn’t live to be very old, because he committed suicide in 1954. Two years before that, he had been arrested because of homosexual acts, prohibited in Great Britain at the time. He was given the choice between a lengthy prison sentence or chemical castration and chose the latter. “A few years ago, he was rehabilitated and the British government apologised profusely for what it had done to him.”

Uiterwijk would have loved to speak to him. “I wonder what revolutionary ideas we missed out on, because he died so young. Many of his (fulfilled) prophecies were done way in advance, so I would have liked to ask him: where will we be in a 100 years’ time?”

This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

“He dared to stray from the beaten path”
Jos Uiterwijk and Alan Turing
Author: Cleo Freriks
Joey Roberts/Simone Golob
Tags: hero

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