Alan Turing may well have pursued a career in neuroscience rather than computer science had he lived, said 2012 IET/BCS Turing Lecturer Professor Ray Dolan in his address yesterday evening at IET Savoy Place in London.
Speaking before a record-breaking capacity Turing Lecture audience, Dolan, who is Mary Kinross Professor of Neuropsychiatry and director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, took as his theme ‘From Cryptanalysis to cognitive neuroscience – a hidden legacy of Alan Turing’ for this year’s event, which marks the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth (in June), and was sponsored by Oxford University Press
His 90-minute presentation began with the challenges Turing faced with Enigma through to its resonances with computational neuroscience and theoretical neurobiology.
“The brain is an inferential machine used to decode the world, and we can use this machinery to look into the brain even at a level that we cannot observe,” said Professor Dolan. “Turing’s later work posed a fundamental challenge: what algorithm is ‘the brain’ running?”
Professor Dolan added: “Alan Turing’s life was tragically curtailed, and it is interesting to speculate where he would have gone in regard to science [had this not been the case]… I would like to suggest that there is a lot to indicate that Turing would have gone into neuroscience, and that the brain was his real interest.”
The evidence for this, adduced Dolan, is some of his late correspondence with [psychiatrist and cybernetics pioneer] William Ross Ashby, who had suggested to Turing that it might be possible to ‘build a brain’, and also with biologist JZ Young on the subject of storing information in the brain in the form of binary bit memory capacity.
Dolan concluded with a call for greater recognition for Alan Turing’s influence on neuroscientific disciplines: “Turing needs to be recognised not only in terms of the contribution to computing, but in that his whole approach in crypto-analysis suffuses much of systems neuroscience today, and this man who is uncelebrated at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery probably deserves a plaque there.”
Professor Dolan’s 2012 IET/BCS Turing Lecture can be viewed in full on IET.tv - http://tv.theiet.org/technology/infopro/12739.cfm