Turing: Keep his work in perspective

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In a cascade of plaudits, George Dyson, Sydney Brenner and Barry Cooper each suggest that Alan Turing's bridging of logic and machines laid the foundation for digital computers, built in the 1940s under John von Neumann (Nature 482, 459460, 461 and 465; 2012).

Turing and von Neumann are both heroes of mine. But, in essence, Turing's famous 1936 paper on incomputability was merely an elegant rephrasing and reuse of mathematician Kurt Gödel's 1931 results and techniques. Gödel devised a more cumbersome, integer-based language to describe a universal algorithmic theorem-prover, which allowed him to identify the fundamental limits of mathematics and provability.

Neither did Turing's paper have any impact on the construction of the first program-controlled universal (and digital) computer: that was built in Berlin by Konrad Zuse in 1935–41, at least 3 years before anyone else's. Zuse's 1936 patent application mentioned an architecture like that of von Neumann's (which von Neumann described in 1945), with programs and data that could be modified in storage. Computing firm IBM was well aware of these breakthroughs and funded Zuse's 1946 start-up through an option on his patents.

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  1. Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence (IDSIA), University of Lugano; and SUPSI, Manno-Lugano, Switzerland.

    • Jürgen Schmidhuber

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