June 11, 2012, 2:12 PM — Listening to the way people in the world of technology talk about Alan Turing, it's difficult to believe that the English computer scientist isn't more of a household name.
IN PICTURES: Alan Turing in the media
"The man challenged everyone's thinking," says Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, in an interview with Network World. "He was so early in the history of computing, and yet so incredibly visionary about it."
Cerf -- who is president-elect of the Association for Computing Machinery and general chair of that organization's effort to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of Turing's birth on June 23 -- says that it's tough to overstate the importance of Turing's role in shaping the world of modern computing.
"Alan had such a broad impact on so many aspects of computer science," says Cerf. "The deep notion of computability is so fundamental to everything we do in computing."
"People ... have done computing for thousands of years," says Moshe Vardi, a distinguished computer science professor at Rice University who is working closely with Cerf on the upcoming ACM celebrations. "But the theory of computing really started in the 20th century, and Turing is one of the foremost -- if not the foremost -- parents of the theory of computing."
Both Vardi and Cerf -- who are influential figures in computer science in their own rights -- cited the idea of computability, or the ability to solve a problem efficiently, as a foundational concept for the development of modern computers.
"Businesses don't even realize how much they rely on [the idea]," says Vardi. "Today, when you have people doing algorithmic trading on Wall Street, they are following in Turing's footsteps. ... There is a line of development, each one following the other, that led from the question 'what is computable?' to the world you see around us today."
Who was Turing?
Alan Turing was born on June 23, 1912, in London. After studying at King's College, Cambridge, and becoming a fellow at the age of 22, he did some of his most important conceptual work in inventing what he called the "a-machine," better known to the world as the Turing machine (pictured below). This hypothetical device -- which reads symbols from a paper strip of theoretically infinite length and interprets them according to an inbuilt table of rules -- is crucially important to the development of computational theory.