June 23 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. Though you may not be familiar with the name, literally every one of you owes the man a huge debt given that you’re almost certainly reading these words on some form of computer. As Wikipedia states, Turing is “widely considered to be the father of computer science,” and his Turing machine is a surprisingly versatile gadget that effectively paved the way for the modern computer, despite being created in 1936.
In an effort to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Turing’s birth, a group of computer scientists at Amsterdam’s Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica opted to recreate the famed machine that bears Turing’s name, only instead of an exact replica, the group decided to build the device in the wonderfully whimsical medium of Lego. They then built a website to show off their creation, and filmed a short documentary demonstrating the machine in action.
As for how it works, the aforementioned site offers the following explanation:
Our LEGO Turing machine uses a tape based on a classic interpretation of computer memory: switches. Additionally, it uses a light sensor to determine the value of a switch: if the switch is on, the sensor will see the black colour of the switch’s surface. But if it is turned off, the sensor will see the white colour of the LEGO beam, making it possible to distinguish between the states. Finally, a rotating beam mounted above the tape can flip the switch in both directions.
Alan Turing’s original model has an infinite tape, but LEGO had a slight problem supplying infinite bricks. So we chose to fix our tape size to 32 positions.
Admittedly, that’s the relatively simple, layman’s explanation. Those of you who want an in-depth understanding of all the intensely geeky aspects of this project should have a look at the site for yourselves. It goes into pretty explicit detail on how this thing works, though for the average person the best evidence of how cool this creation is would be the video embedded below.
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