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2020 Humanities Aronui Medal: Alan Turing, artificial intelligence and computing

Credit: University of Canterbury

Distinguished Professor Jack Copeland FRSNZ has been awarded the Humanities Aronui Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for his research on the foundations, philosophy and history of computing.

Jack is a leading philosopher of artificial intelligence, computing and information technology, and a world-wide expert on Alan Turing. His research in computing and philosophy includes a revisionary history of the computer and rewriting the early history of computer graphics and music.

From the early 1990s, Jack’s work asked pioneering questions central to current debates about the nature and scope of computing. Philosopher Daniel Dennett said of his 1993 book Artificial Intelligence: ‘Thanks to Copeland, a generation of well-informed philosophers is now exploring this fertile ground with insight’.

Jack’s work on the early history of computing—especially the top-secret Colossus codebreaking computers at Bletchley Park—is widely known. His book Colossus (2006) was described in Nature as ‘essential reading for historians of twentieth-century technology and warfare’. This revisionary history of the computer prompted the London Financial Times to assert that ‘Computing history has to be rewritten’.

At the pinnacle of Jack’s achievements are six books and many papers on the mathematician, computer pioneer and early cognitive scientist Alan Turing, which ushered in a new era in Turing scholarship. Jack’s ability to reach a large audience outside the academy was evident when his 2012 Oxford University lecture on Turing's supposed suicide (summarising two years' research) was widely reported internationally. Prize-winning TV documentaries by Arte/History Channel and the BBC are based on his books.

Jack’s other contributions to the history of information technology include rewriting the early history of computer graphics, after discovering records of the first persistent digital images while examining materials kept by the family of forgotten engineer Andrei Haeff.  Similarly, his 2016 restoration, with musician Jason Long, of the earliest known recording of computer-generated music (an outcome of years of research into Manchester University's early digital computer) attracted widespread international attention, and was exhibited by the British Library during 2017-18 as one of the 100 most significant sound recordings since 1877.

Jack is also recognised as an expert on Arthur Prior (1914–1969), a philosopher of logic who is increasingly recognised as the greatest of all New Zealand philosophers. Prior was a pioneer in the logics of time (tense logic) and possibility (modal logic), which have turned out to have important applications to metaphysics and computer science.

On receiving the medal, Jack said: “Thanks Te Apārangi, this means a lot to me. Thanks also to all the others involved in some way—co-researchers, those wonderful librarians who keep me supplied with articles and books, the graduate students who fool my brain into thinking it’s still young, the committees and managers who fund my research, and the University of Canterbury for providing a first-rate research environment.”

Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at University of Canterbury, Jack has received many prizes and honours. The citation for the American Philosophical Association’s Barwise Prize (2017), celebrates him as ‘the world-wide expert on Alan Turing and a leading philosopher of AI, computing and information’. He features on the IT History Society Honor Roll, and received the 2016 Covey Award recognising his ‘substantial record of innovative research in the field of computing and philosophy’. He was elected a Fellow of Royal Society Te Apārangi in 2011 and won the University of Canterbury Research Medal in 2009.

Humanities Aronui Medal:
For research or innovative work of outstanding merit in the humanities.

To Jack Copeland for his research into the foundations, philosophy and history of computing.