Even Alan Turing struggled with computers crashing

By Dermot Turing

The legacy of Alan Turing is varied, and one of the exciting initiatives which commemorate his short life is the Turing Festival (#TuringFest). Timed to coincide with the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe, the Turing Festival joins the IT world into the Edinburgh festivals by bringing world-class speakers from the field of technology to inspire and assist young entrepreneurs who are starting up and developing their own tech businesses.

Continues to inspire

This year I had the privilege of being invited to speak to the Turing Festival delegates about the life of Alan Turing. Of course everyone at a gathering like this knows all about Alan and his pioneering work at Bletchley Park, breaking the German Enigma cipher. So I thought I should focus on something slightly different, his post-war work in building the world’s first computing machines, the first software, and the perennial question about whether you can say that computers actually ‘think’.

There was a minor furore in 1949 when Alan, in an interview with  The Times , said that a sonnet written by a computer would be better appreciated by another computer than a human – which was  bit of a stretch when the computer he was talking about had a memory size of only 1064 bits.

Documents from the Manchester University archives reveal Alan Turing’s own frustration with a computer programme he was working on in 1953 which crashed for no obvious reason. The link between his experiences and the life of present-day coders, is closer than you might imagine. Alan’s life continues to be inspiring in many ways.

The Turing Trust

More than 400 delegates at Edinburgh’s Central Hall have been receiving the benefit of speakers’ wisdom on topics like product development, marketing, getting paid, and international expansion – and enjoying plenty of chances to network during the coffee-and-beer breaks.

And the Turing Festival also provided an opportunity to showcase The Turing Trust, a small Edinburgh-based charity which has as its mission to empower students in Africa who do not have access to IT equipment. The Trust takes computers which are being replaced by British companies and institutions, wipes them clean of confidential data and then restores and refurbishes them to factory condition. Then the revitalised computers are shipped out to African schools.

Ready-made IT labs

One aspect of the Turing Trust’s work caught the imagination of the Turing Trust delegates; the Solar Berry. Brian Ferguson, the Trust’s Malawi project manager, explains: “A Solar Berry is basically an old shipping container, but we can rig it up with a set of solar panels so it has its own power-source. We cut two doors into the side of the container to make it airy and light, and that gives us a pre-fabricated classroom which fits on the back of a lorry. So we can bring a ready-made IT lab to schools which are off the regular electricity grid.”

In countries like Malawi the off-grid functionality is vital.

Adds Brian: “Our aim is to make a difference in less privileged communities. We were delighted to receive an investment of £60,000 from the Scottish Government to help make this project happen. It’s great to see the project bearing fruit, as the first shipment of computers for Malawi is scheduled to go out in just over two weeks’ time.”

Dermot Turing is a trustee of The Turing Trust and the author of ‘Prof: Alan Turing Decoded‘.