Talking at the Alan Turing Centenary event, BCS Mid Wales

On Monday we had the BCS Mid Wales AGM (fastest AGM in the west – all business dealt with well within the allotted 25 minutes), followed by an Alan Turing Centenary event. This year 2012 marks 100 years since Alan Turing’s birth, and all around the country there are events highlighting his life and work, indeed you can find a very long list on So in BCS Mid Wales we decided to put on an evening of short (10 minute) and accessible talks on his work. Then we discovered that a friend had written a play about Turing, which is on at the Arts Centre in a short while, called To Kill A Machine; and so we persuaded her to preview a couple of scenes at the event.

The evening started with Jim Finnis talking about the Entscheidungsproblem; this talk encompassed Turing’s work on computability, what a turing machine is, what Hilbert was trying to do, and basically a history of early 20th century Mathematics and the birth of computational theory. In 10 minutes. This was followed by Roger Boyle on Turing’s work on codebreaking at Bletchley, concentrating on his work on the Lorenz cipher, and on speech. One interesting thing about this pair of talks was the idea that before the war, Turing was engaged with working out what was not possible – what we couldn’t prove or build. During the war he was engaged with building what he knew could be built.

I was up next, and my talk started with an introduction to the Turing Test and the original 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, which you can find online here: [Original scan; Web version]. I then did a quick exercise from the Turing related Technocamps workshop that we put together a couple of months ago, which was chaotic but fun. My next slide involved an interactive stick your hands up quiz bit. I am, for the first time, trying to replicate a quiz on this blog using Google forms: you should see a quiz below here if you want to try and guess, and if you want to see other people’s responses you should be able to click through to a chart.The blog post continues after the quiz:

Having introduced the Turing Test, chatbots, and that kind of stuff I finished with a fairly rambling discussion of “The AI Effect“, finishing with a quote from Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, the paper upon which my talk was based. Much of the meat of my talk was inspired by an excellent book by Brian Christian, called The Most Human Human; I would recommend this book to anyone interested in AI and the Turing Test.

Amanda Clare then talked about Turing’s work in computational Biology; I hadn’t realised that his most cited paper was on morphogenesis, but I knew about the Turing sunflowers as we have a couple in the department. As part of her talk she showed us that, even on the sunflowers grown by the Computer Science department in Aberystwyth, the counts of spirals on flower-heads were governed by the Fibonacci sequence.

The Aberystwyth Turing Sunflowers some time ago

We finished with the first four scenes from Catrin’s play To Kill a Machine, showing elements of Turing’s early life and friendship with Christopher Morecom, then the move to Bletchley. It was read by actors – I think the same ones who’ll be working in the première of the play at the end of November – and I thought is was great. I have since bought 6 tickets to the première (you can too, hint hint).

We finished with some drinks & a light buffet and loads of people hung around to talk – in all, a very successful event. It might be an idea to try and repeat this formula, of 4 short talks (I don’t expect we will have the luck of getting another play though!).

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