Turing’s code-breaking & computation by natural systems

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Gustav Tuck Lecture Theatre, University College London

, Gower St, Bloomsbury, WC1E 6BT · London

How to find us

Enter UCL via Gower St main entrance. Walk diagonally right across the courtyard & follow the signs. Can't find the room or will be a bit delayed? Call or text 07767221018

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Turing’s life and work was popularised in ‘The Imitation Game’ (2014), starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Alan Turing was a Cambridge mathematician who played a leading role in the effort to break the ‘Enigma’ cryptographic message system used by the German army during World War II. He is also known as the man whose mathematical theories gave birth to the concept of modern computation, due to his seminal paper of 1936 in which Turing established the science of computer theory (in parallel with Alonzo Church). Turing’s paper ushered in the era of digital computing with the idea of a ‘Universal Turing Machine’ that could compute any mathematical function.

Less well known is Turing’s work in theoretical biology. He was very interested in how biological systems ‘compute’. Another seminal paper Turing paper is on the subject of how complex patterns in groups of cells could theoretically occur as part of the natural development of an organism based on simple rules about the diffusion of chemicals between the cells. Obvious examples are the stripes of a tiger or the spots of a leopard. ‘Turing Patterns’ are yet to be proven yet are still an area of active investigation today by some of the world’s leading researchers in theoretical biology.

This talk will be about another aspect Turing’s work in the light of some of the papers just presented at the Theo Murphy International Scientific Meeting on Computation by Natural Systems, which was held on 21-22 March 2018.

These very recent papers and experimental results will be discussed in relation to a theory of Turing which involves an algorithm he called ‘Banburismus’, used as part of the code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park. Turing’s Banburismus algorithm appears to relate organisational processes (in its original application this is the organisational flow of the code-breaking effort) to the assessment of risk. The Banburismus algorithm has already been the subject of papers in Neuroscience, notably Gold and Shadlen (2002). Since the computation of risk in terms of organisational flows may be important in biology the potential relationships to emergent biological organisation (such as Turing Patterns) are of interest, and will be discussed.

Where: Gustav Tuck Lecture Theatre UCL. Enter UCL via Gower St main entrance. Walk diagonally right across the courtyard towards the right corner of the main quadrangle (follow the signs for Complexity Science). Enter the Wilkins Building at the South Cloisters (you'll see the building name) turn right and then left. Then, look for the staircase, head up to the second floor, where you will find the lecture theatre. See map below.

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Adam Timlett has a research masters in philosophy from the University of East Anglia and is a History graduate of Trinity College, Oxford. In 2018 he published a chapter on complexity and common sense in the latest book in the Springer Nature Studies in Brain and Mind series. He currently works as an Insight Solutions Developer at the company PPL, and lives in London, United Kingdom. He has a keen interest in science, philosophy, technology, and innovation. He blogs on the subject of 'complexity' and also collaborates with the 'complexity' artist James Robert White. His current blog is found at:

His older blog is on his collaborator’s website: