Stephen Fry is wrong about Alan Turing

Stephen Fry argues that Alan Turing’s “Universal Machine” is the greatest ever British innovation.

Turing at the time of his election to Fellowsh...

The case for Turing is, of course, a strong one. Not just because of the computer you are reading this blog on, but because, probably even more importantly, Turing’s concept was at the heart of the British “Station X” codebreaking effort in the Second World War, shortening the war by years and perhaps was even essential to national survival. Defeating Hitler – something that it is hard to believe could have been done without Britain even if others paid a higher price in money and lives to finally deliver the triumph – remains the great British gift to humanity.

But it is utterly wrong.

Because the Universal Machine is not an invention or innovation at all. It is a discovery – of a mathematical idea – and it has existed (at least) since the beginning of our universe and will still exist long after we (humanity) are all gone.

Admittedly my formulation of mathematics – essentially Platonic – is not uncontroversial and I have strong “political” motivations for making it (of I will be writing more shortly) – seeing mathematical ideas as discoveries rather than inventions is core to keeping patent lawyers’ hands off them (in this jurisdiction at least).

But why treat maths as any different from physics? We are surely not about to grant Peter Higgs (lovely man that he is) a patent over mass, even though we are on the verge of confirming his theoretical paper of 1962 was essentially correct in its formulation of the “Higgs field” that gives particles mass.

Update: Stephen Fry is of course describing the Universal Machine as an “innovation” and not an “invention” as I originally descried it at the top of this article (changed now). The argument doesn’t change though – I don’t think it is an innovation, because it has always existed. It is a great discovery, arguably the greatest, but that’s a different matter.


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