How to Run a Turing Machine

Jun Aoyama on Flickr

A pen and paper computer that can do what computers do today.

You may have heard of Alan Turing, the British mathematician that helped crack the German Engima device during WWII and who invented our current notion of how to tell if an AI is conscious like a human, but his first major contribution to mathematics and computer science, long before we had computers, was the invention of the Turing machine.

Turing machines are simple devices that are made out of some kind of paper tape, a pen, and a way to read, write, or erase what’s on the paper tape. They also can solve any problem that a computer today can handle. While to Turing they were entirely hypothetical, some people have tried to make physical machines like the video linked at the bottom of the article.

Turing didn’t call them “Turing machines”, though; he called them “a-machines”. He introduced them in a paper in 1936. The paper has a bit of a nondescript title: On computable numbers, with an application to the entscheidungproblem. That name doesn’t necessarily mean anything to us, but it meant a lot to other mathematicians at the time. In those days, mathematicians were very concerned about the “entscheidungproblem”, the decision problem.

The decision problem was about whether machines could potentially make the lives of mathematicians easier. They wanted to know whether it was possible to give a machine a logical statement and for the machine to run a program and decide if it is always true.

 

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