This Is Only a Foretaste of What Is To Come, and Only the Shadow of What Is Going To Be

Alan Turing? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Code breaker Alan Turing was a major figure in computer science and a pioneer in artificial intelligence. In 2021 Turing’s portrait will appear on newly issued £50 notes from the Bank of England. Would you please explore the quotation that reportedly will be printed on the notes?

Quote Investigator: In June 1949 “The Times” of London published an article about a Manchester University project which built an electronic calculator referred to hyperbolically as a “mechanical mind”. This early computing device was able to perform a calculation that had heretofore been impossible because of its length and intricacy. Turing’s commentary was both exciting and ominous. Boldface is used to highlight the quotation that will appear on the upcoming bank note: 1

Mr. Turing said yesterday: “This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be. We have to have some experience with the machine before we really know its capabilities. It may take years before we settle down to the new possibilities, but I do not see why it should not enter any one of the fields normally covered by the human intellect, and eventually compete on equal terms.”

Turing also outlined an important future objective of the project:

Their research would be directed to finding the degree of intellectual activity of which a machine was capable, and to what extent it could think for itself.

This short article ends with a citation, conclusion, image note, and acknowledgement.

In July 2019 “The New York Times” published a piece about the forthcoming £50 note, and the accompanying image depicted the “Alan Turing Banknote Concept” which displayed the quotation. 2

In conclusion, Alan Turing deserves credit for the remarks he made in the 1949 article. He died in 1954; thus, he never saw the remarkable progress achieved in computer science during the remainder of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

Image Notes; Illustration of an electronic brain from geralt at Pixabay.

(Thanks to quotation expert Nigel Rees who discussed this statement in the October 2019 issue of the “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter”. Rees pointed to the 1949 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1949 June 11, The Times, The Mechanical Brain: Answer Found To 300 Year-Old Sum (From Our Special Correspondent), Quote Page 4, Column 5, London, England. (Gale Digital Archive of The Times of London)
  2. 2019 July 15, New York Times (Online), Britain’s £50 Note Will Honor Computing Pioneer Alan Turing by Amie Tsang, New York. (ProQuest)