Turing’s Vision

Chris Bernhardt

Published by

MIT Press





Reviewed by

Dean Burnell MBCS


8 out of 10

Alan Turing is a much known and celebrated figure in the world of computing. He is credited as being one of the founding fathers of computer science. Many will know of him from the famous Turing test which attempts to assess a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

Turing's most important intellectual work is his paper ‘On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungs problem’, published in 1936. If you've ever attempted to read it, you would be forgiven for being left with a feeling that you've not fully appreciated its value.

Where as other books might take a holistic view of Turing’s life and works, this book seeks to describe the background and explain the value of the ideas contained in his most famous publication. Across 8 well defined chapters it covers the history of mathematics, theoretical computing machines, Turing machines, as well as alternative ways of looking at computation including lambda calculus, the tag system and cellular automata.

The book builds to provide a ground-up explanation of how Turing developed his ideas and why they still remain important to the field of computer science to this day. The book ends with a fairly short chapter describing Turing's career and how his ideas contributed to the production of the first computers from the 1940s onwards. Although the book is predominantly about his work rather than his life, It also goes on to suggest that his death in 1954 may have been an accident rather than suicide. The book ends with Gordon Brown’s 2003 apology for his treatment at a time when attitudes towards homosexuality were very different to how they are today.

The book is not designed with a ‘mathematician readership’ in mind, and I was generally impressed by its accessibility. The use of examples such as the Barber paradox as an example of proof by contradiction and Hilbert’s Hotel to explain cardinality greatly helped to explain the ideas in the book, although I did find myself rereading sections at times to ensure I had a full understanding.

This book is good value for money and recommended reading for anyone interested in improving their understanding of the origin of many of the fundamentals we all now take for granted in the fast-moving field of computer science.

Further information: MIT Press

October 2016