Alan Turing: Algorithms, Computation, Machines
What is computation? What is an algorithm? Is it possible to build an “electronic brain” that would be indistinguishable from human intelligence? Could such a machine “learn” by updating its own algorithms in response to inputs and experience? In 1936, a 24-year old Alan Turing published a paper titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” which initiated, and still influences, the study of these questions. Turing defined certain “logical computing machines”—what we now call Turing machines. These are not physical machines, but rather a mathematical definition of algorithmic computation. The 1936 paper marked the origin of computer science and the theory of computation. In subsequent decades, Turing machines became the standard model for understanding computation and formed the theoretical foundation for the first physical computers (including through Turing’s work after WWII). Today, they remain central to discussions in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence.
In this course, we will explore the concepts and impact of Turing’s work on computability. We will start by examining the intellectual context for Turing’s ideas in debates regarding the foundations of mathematics, particularly in the work of David Hilbert and Kurt Gödel. We will also carefully study the definition of a Turing machine, and Turing’s remarkable construction of a universal Turing machine: a single machine which can simulate any other machine, i.e., which can carry out any algorithm. In addition to Turing’s 1936 and 1950 papers, readings will include selections from Chris Bernhardt’s Turing’s Vision: The Birth of Computer Science, Charles Petzold’s The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine, and Andrew Hodges’s definitive biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm
April 06 — May 04, 2017
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet on April 13