John L. Casti, in his fine review of Alan Turing: Life and Legacy of a Great Thinker, edited by Christof Teuscher (“Touring artificial minds” Nature 428, 258; 200410.1038/428258a), proposes that Turing had more impact on everyday life than the man named by Time magazine as Person of the Century, Albert Einstein (Time 154, 27; 1999). Casti suggests that Turing's 1936 paper provided the “theoretical backbone” for all computers to come.
Although Turing, a hero of mine, certainly was one of the greatest, we should keep in mind that his paper essentially just elegantly rephrased Kurt Gödel's 1931 results and Alonzo Church's extension thereof. It did not have any impact on the construction of the first working program-controlled computer. That was made in Berlin by Konrad Zuse in 1935–1941 and was driven by practical considerations, not theoretical ones.
In fact, the greatest impact that Alan Turing made on daily life was probably through his contribution to cracking the Enigma code, used by the German military during the Second World War, which is sometimes cited as a decisive event of the war.
correspondence Contributions to Correspondence may be submitted to email@example.com. They should be no longer than 500 words, and ideally shorter. Published contributions are edited.
About this article
Cite this article
Schmidhuber, J. Turing's war work counts for more than computers. Nature 429, 501 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/429501c