Sunday, 18 January 2015

calculated passion

Ada Lovelace is regarded by some in the scientific community as a socialite and sort of Girl Friday to Charles Babbage, whose contributions to the development of computers and programming was minimal. That unfair characterisation is happily on its way out, thanks in part to the championing of another one of history’s discounted, cryptographer Alan Turing who suffered horrid muckraking, who helped to revive Lovelace’s name and reputation because Turing, having rediscovered one of her all but forgotten treatises, was compelled to profoundly disagree with her miraculous stance, formulated eighty years before, holding that machines could do what we were capable of ordering them to do but did not think for themselves. Turing begged to differ and was behind some of the theories that would lead to the study and concept of artificial intelligence. This aside, of course, was just of hint of the scope of Lovelace’s conceptual leap that would elevate the computer above the steam-powered abacus it was designed to be to what we do and how we think about modern, general-purpose computing.
Charles Babbage’s most famous contributions to computing, the Difference Engine and the Analytic Engine, were inestimably important but both were never completed, and I suppose that it could be argued that Babbage invented the computer in the same sense that Leonardo invented the helicopter, but were consigned with the express purpose of correcting errors in mathematical tables, long schedules of logarithmic and exponential functions used for scientific, navigation and engineering applications, like projecting population growth, measuring magnitudes of change, interest rates, and radioactive decay—whose functions were figured by humans and fallible and those errors spread widely enough caused much frustration. Lovelace, though it was probably not well understood at the time since there were no words or concepts for programming, debugging and algorithms back then, was even more a visionary than the mechanically-inclined Babbage. Purposefully estranged from her father, poet Lord Byron, by her jilted and somewhat domineering mother, so Lovelace might not inherit her father’s disturbing temperament, the young Ada’s education had strong emphasis in logic and mathematics, but despite (and because) of her mother’s best efforts, Lovelace seemed to have a keen balance of the arts and sciences—enabling her to see potential beyond mere number-crunching.

With proper instruction (encoding to be done on the same punch-cards, used up until the 1980s, that produced intricate and mass-produced textile patterns from mechanised looms) computers could be made to not merely check the work of human-calculators but to perform complex calculations never before assailed, and with the right interface and parameters could produce aesthetically and mathematically harmonious music and architecture. Lovelace was not only unconventional unladylike to the society of her day in her genius but also in her general deportment as was frowned upon for her scandalous behaviour that was routine for gentlemen with boozing, opium-addiction and gambling. Lovelace even tried to comply an algorithm that would be guaranteed to beat the odds at the hippodrome, but lost quite big. Like her later day champion Turing, she tragically died at young with her brilliance untapped and misunderstood until much later.