UK government plans big data institute in 'honour' of Dr Alan Turing

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez March 19, 2014
Summary:
The World War II codebreaker was recently given a posthumous royal pardon after being convicted of homosexual activity in the 1950s

The UK government's annual Budget day is usually just an opportunity for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take the stage for an hour and run through his spending plans for the coming year and highlight a number of 'success' stories for the British economy.

Occasionally there's the odd announcement about investment in technology, but rarely something particularly interesting pops up. However, today Chancellor George Osborne [the UK finance minister] took the chance to further correct an injustice against one of technology's greatest figures.

In a speech made in the House of Commons today, Osborne unveiled plans to 'honour' Dr Alan Turing by creating a new big data institute in his name, which will receive £42 million worth of funding over the next five years. The Alan Turing Institute will be a national organisation aimed at undertaking new research and helping businesses find innovative ways of collecting, organising and analysing large sets of data. 

budget

Although the government hopes that the Institute will help give the UK a competitive edge in the ever-popular field of big data research, the announcement is also yet another attempt to right the wrongs carried out against Dr Turing, whom was convicted of homosexuality in 1952 and forced to undergo a chemical castration to 'put a stop to' his preference for men.

The Chancellor told fellow MPs:

“In my maiden speech here in this House I spoke of Alan Turing, the codebreaker who lived in my constituency, who did more than almost any other single person to win the war, and who was persecuted for his sexuality by the country he helped save.

“Now, in his honour, we will found the Alan Turing Institute to ensure Britain leads the way again in the use of big data and algorithm research.

“I am determined that our country is going to out-compete, out-smart and out-do the rest of the world.”

A pardon

Dr Alan Turing has been nicknamed the 'father of modern computing' by those working in the industry – and rightly so. The genius codebreaker played a fundamental role in the end of World War II, where it is thought that his involvement in cracking the Enigma code reduced the length of the international conflict by at least two years. However, in 1952 – and to the shame of many British politicians and citizens – Dr Turing was convicted of gross indecency after it was found out that he was having an affair with a 19 year old man from Manchester.

The conviction not only resulted in his chemical castration, but also the loss of Dr Turing's security clearance at the UK's intelligence agency, GCHQ, to which he had dedicated many years of work. Turing died in 1952 from cyanide poisoning and although an inquest decided that this was the result of him committing suicide, there has been speculation for years that the cause of his death was an accident.

On Christmas Eve last year the government in the UK finally announced that Turing had been granted a posthumous royal pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy by the Queen, following a long-running campaign to clear his name. Typically such a pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest, such as a family member – but in this case neither requirement was met, which the government kindly stated (note mildly sarcastic tone) highlighted the

Bletchley_Park
Turing played a critical role in solving the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

exceptional nature of Alan Turing's achievements. Nothing like a bit of hindsight.

At the time of the pardon, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said:

“[Dr Alan Turing's] later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed.

“Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

Dr Turing's Institute

Very few details have been released about the Institute itself and how exactly it will be used to bolster the UK's big data capabilities. What we do know is:

  • £42 million will be funded over a five year period, where the Institute will be focused on helping businesses make better use of 'big data'.
  • Organisations and universities interested in running the Institute will be invited to bid for the funding this year
  • Funding will come from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and its chief will report to science minister, David Willetts
  • It is still unclear how many people will work for the organisation and who will head it up

However, despite the lack of granular detail, management consultants KPMG believe that this is a step in the right direction towards 'industrialising' big data in the UK.

Alwin Magimay, UK head of digital and analytics at KPMG, said:

“This is really welcome news for the UK. Data scientists are what computer programmers were to the UK economy in the nineties. We as a nation need to industrialise this discipline to ensure that British business can prosper from understanding the potential of the data and turn it into a competitive business advantage.

“The investment of £42 million is a powerful signal to businesses, academic institutions and investors to sit up and realise that big data isn’t just a term coined by the technology world but that it presents a real opportunity for UK business to gain value from the abundance of data being created in a digital and connected world.”

My take

Although the UK government cannot truly undo the atrocities carried out against Dr Alan Turing – a man that dedicated a lot of his working

benedict-cumberbatch-as-alan-turing-in-imitation-game
Bendict Cumberbatch as Dr Alan Turing

life to helping the people that ultimately turned against him – it is a step in the right direction that his name is finally being honoured by authorities, and will also hopefully help raise his profile amongst the general public. Although, soon-to-be-released blockbuster film staring Benedict Cumberbatch will probably do more for that cause than a big data institute.

As for the organisation itself it is very much a case of only time will tell. My instinct is that there is enough appetite out there for big data solutions that customer demand will continue to drive investment by IT vendors for the foreseeable future,regardless of what the government is doing. But the fact that the UK wants to do this in the public domain can only be good news and given the country's background in groundbreaking IT solutions, there may well be a few nuggets of gold that trickle out of the Alan Turing Institute in years to come.