Bletchley Park: The Birthplace of Artificial Intelligence

We started Datagami because we wanted to highlight positive uses of data. This month I was thrilled to be able to visit Bletchley Park – one of the most impressive and positive uses of data I know of.

The town of Bletchley is just about an hour’s train ride north of London and Bletchley Park is a five minute walk from the Bletchley train station. It was here during World War II that a group of people came together to try to break the codes that the Germans used to communicate with each other. The park was only in operation from 1938 to 1946 – but in those 8 short years they revolutionized the use of data and created the beginning of artificial intelligence as we know it today.

The codebreakers acted in total secrecy. If the Germans had realized their systems had been breached they would stop using them – so the Allies actually created fake spies and made up fake stories and sent fake messages about these fake spies discovering German plans.

At its height and quite interesting for that era, two thirds of the Bletchley Park workers were women. This was partially because it was a time of war and women were more available and partially because there was a lot of clerical work involved – but I like to think it was also because they recognized that women had a unique perspective to add to the codebreaking efforts. The park used a combination of methods including language books and cipher tables to help with their efforts. Codebreaking is hard enough, but the difficulty would be compounded if you don’t speak the language you’re trying to break the code for!

Many computer science students will have heard of Alan Turing. Considered by many to be the father of artificial intelligence, creator of the Turing Machine and an amazing scientist. Turing was a key inventor at Bletchley Park and was responsible for building a computer called the Bombe that broke the cipher that Hitler used to communicate messages with his strategic command. Turing was the focus of the 2014 historical drama The Imitation Game. There was an earlier movie in 1986 as well called Breaking the Code that focused on his story.

The information that Bletchley Park was able to obtain from all of this contributed hugely to the victory at Normandy. And likely ended World War II a couple of years sooner than it would have otherwise – saving millions of lives.

The work that was done at Bletchley Park wasn’t de-classified until the 1970s. Can you imagine working there and not being able to talk about it for over 30 years? When you visit the park, you can go through each of the buildings where they worked and see the equipment that was used. It’s a sprawling campus with many buildings and takes a few hours to walk through – especially with social distancing in place for Covid.

It was a great day, and a true inspiration. Alan Turing has been a hero of mine since university. But it was also a sobering reminder of how times have changed and yet how far we still have to go. Despite Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley, he was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ in 1952. He was homosexual and homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time. Given the choice between prison and chemical castration, Alan chose chemical castration. He committed suicide in 1954.

In 2009, the prime minister issued a public apology for the way that Turing was treated and Queen Elizabeth granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013. I knew the story already, but I cried in the museum when reading it again. Such a sad mark on an otherwise amazing part of our history.

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