Alan Turing has been praised by leading British spy Iain Lobban, saying ‘enduring lessons’ can be drawn from his work.
Lobban is director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), Britain’s ‘listening station’ giving ears to its intelligence services.
He said there were ‘many parallels between the way we work now and the way we worked then’ in reference to the World War II hero.
Turing, although virtually unknown to the public at the time, was a homosexual mathematician and a key part of the team that cracked the Nazi Enigma code at Bletchley Park.
There work was a vital part of the allied war effort and may have shorted the war by several years.
Lobban said Turing had played a key part in the ‘irrevocable change’ that eventually led to the development of the ‘highly technological intelligence organisation that GCHQ is today.’
Describing Turing as one of the ‘great minds of the 20th century’ he said that staff at the organisation had demanded that he make ‘a big public deal’ of Turing’s legacy as part of celebrations marking the centenary of the codebreaker’s birth.
Lobban said that the codebreaking work at Bletchley marked a shift to a mindset that ‘started to see technology as something that could be pitted against technology’ which is why Turing is now widely recognised as a computing pioneer, despite his work being kept quiet until 1974.
Lobban said technology lies at the heart of our mission and expressed how engineers and technologists are an essential part of our success.
He added that key skills need to be developed in order for this to be carried out and said: ‘We must inspire school children to study maths and science – we must find tomorrow’s Turings.’
During the rare public speech, Lobban also addressed the well known aspect of Turing’s homosexuality.
‘The fact that Turing was unashamedly gay was widely known to his immediate colleagues at Bletchley Park: it wasn’t an issue,’ he said.
‘I don’t want to pretend that GCHQ was an organisation with 21st century values in the twentieth century, but it was at the most tolerant end of the cultural spectrum.’
Later in his life, Turing was convicted of gross indecency after an affair with another man.
Instead of enduring a life in prison, he was subsequently obliged to take injections of female hormones in an effort to dull his sex drive and after his arrest he was no longer given an opportunity to carry out work for GCHQ.
He later committed suicide as a result. Attempts to grant him a posthumous pardon for his gay ‘crime’ have so-far failed but former Prime Minister Gordon Brown did make a public apology for his treatment.
Lobban said ‘we should remember that the cost of intolerance towards Alan Turing was his loss to the nation.’
He added that today it remained vital that the agency recruited the best people and did ‘not allow preconceptions and stereotypes to stifle innovation and agility.’
‘I want to apply and exploit their talent: in return, I think it’s fair that I don’t need to tell them how to live their lives,’ he said.
Some claim Apple’s logo is in tribute to Turing who apparently committed suicide by eating an apple dipped in cyanide.