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World expert on Turing, computing and AI receives national award

16 November 2020

Groundbreaking research exploring the early history of computers and artificial intelligence has won a University of Canterbury (UC) Professor recognition from the Royal Society Te Apārangi.


UC Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Jack Copeland is the recipient of the Society’s 2020 Humanities Aronui Medal for his work exploring the foundations, philosophy and history of computing.

Professor Copeland is regarded as an international authority on Alan Turing, a World War II codebreaker, mathematical logician and pioneer of modern computer science and artificial intelligence. He has published six books on Turing and his work, including the biography Turing (2014) and The Turing Guide (2017).

Professor Copeland, who was born in London, has been interested in Turing since he was an undergraduate. “He gave us so much of the modern world. He invented the fundamental logical principles our computers are based on. He pioneered artificial intelligence (AI) research and also warned the world about some of the dangers inherent in attempting to create AI.

“Plus, he played a leading role in breaking some of Hitler’s toughest codes, so helping to save untold millions of lives. Fundamentally, I think it’s the sheer breadth of Turing’s work that fascinates me. He was a transdisciplinary thinker par excellence, and that resonates with me very strongly.”

Professor Copeland’s book Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Codebreaking Computers (2006), is considered one of the most important publications on the history of computers.

His 2012 Oxford University lecture on Turing’s supposed suicide (summarising two years’ research) was widely reported internationally and became a top story for BBC News.

He has also published more than 100 journal articles on the philosophy and history of both computing and mathematical logic.

Professor Copeland won the prestigious UC Research Medal in 2009 and in 2016 he gained world-wide attention after he restored the earliest known recording of computer-generated music. It had been made more than 65 years earlier - using Turing’s programming techniques—on a primitive electronic computer built in Manchester between 1948 and 1951.

This work, carried out with co-researcher and UC alumni Jason Long, was selected for the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organisation’s virtual exhibition on Artificial Intelligence which opened in Geneva earlier this year.

It was also exhibited by the British Library during 2017-18 as one of the 100 most significant sound recordings since 1877.

UC Professor Paul Millar says Professor Copeland’s contribution has been to expand the boundaries of our understanding of the impact of computing on the modern era, and to share his findings as broadly and generously as possible.

The Aronui Medal was presented to Professor Copeland at a 2020 Research Honours Aotearoa ceremony held at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Thursday night.

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