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Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day: what Ada means to us

Celebrating the contribution to global culture of a remarkable woman: a curious visionary, poetical scientist and collaborative thinker.

Octavia Reeve

8 October 2019

Reading time: 5 minutes

Painted portrait of Ada Lovelace

At the Ada Lovelace Institute, we are uniquely connected to Ada’s legacy and conscious every day of the high standards she set for intellectual rigour and analysis. These qualities, combined with her impressive abilities to see beyond accepted models, aggregate meanings from disparate sources and work with others to build new knowledge, are embedded in our daily work. We take this opportunity to honour her memory and celebrate the qualities that are embodied in the Institute that proudly bears her name.

Ada Lovelace (1815–52) has been adopted globally as a trailblazer for women in maths and science; the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron, she was educated by her mother Anne Isabella Noel Byron to excel in mathematics. Her most influential work and writings were produced in relation to Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, designed in 1837.

Where Babbage conceived a general-purpose, programmable computer for calculation, Lovelace saw the infinite possibilities of extending mathematical computing to real-world applications that has underpinned the development of our technological societies: ‘The Analytical Engine might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by [the] mechanism of the engine…’

Critically, Lovelace saw the power of programming, anticipating its impact for humanity a hundred years ahead of modern computing: ‘A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.’

Lovelace’s curious mind is manifest across her writings. Her claim, ‘That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal,’ has multiple resonances for our twenty-first century relationship with ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence (AI). Despite her visionary thinking, she understood and fought against the limitations of human cognition: ‘I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me…’

Above all, Lovelace seems to have had what contemporary neuropsychologists would recognise as a facility for pattern recognition, enabling her to interpret ideas in ways that others couldn’t conceive. She described this as ‘the combining faculty’, the ability to see commonalities ‘between subjects having no apparent connexion, and hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition’.

Intellectually trammelled by her mathematical education, which was designed to overwrite her paternal inheritance, Lovelace fought the confines of disciplinary traditions with this rebuke: ‘If you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me poetical science?’ She spoke of the power of imagination and mathematics combined, ‘Imagination is the discovering faculty… that which feels the REAL which exists not for our senses… Mathematical science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things…’ Having established that arts and sciences can be mutually beneficial, she extrapolated this into society: ‘Imagination too shows what is… Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly scientific, those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!’

Lovelace’s work languished in relative obscurity until the 1950s, when Alan Turing (1912–54) recognised her visionary contribution to the development of computing, locating his thinking about AI against what he called ‘Lady Lovelace’s Objection’, that a machine had ‘no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.’

Babbage’s machine was decades ahead of its time – ‘complete’  in Turing’s terms, incorporating arithmetic logic, control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory – but Lovelace’s extension of Babbage’s thinking, to reflect on the relationship between humans and machines, the potentials of AI and the societal uses of technology, is remarkable. A hundred years later, her provocations persuaded Turing to conceive the ‘Turing Test’ – the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour that was indistinguishable from that of a human, which underpins discussions around AI ethics today.

Lovelace’s inspiration is embedded in the constitution of the Ada Lovelace Institute and informs our daily practice, as we address challenges that come not from technologies themselves, but from the complex relationships between technologies and the societies we live in. As curious visionary, she reminds us to seek out evidence to understand the big picture, to pay attention to the minutiae and to be alive to leaps in thinking.

As poetical scientist, Lovelace points us to the importance of interdisciplinary thinking, in a world where technological, societal and ethical questions don’t have a ‘right answer’. The way forward is located in competing values like diversity and (dis)advantage, and we need social and data science, moral philosophy and practical ethics to work together within plural societies, to address ethical issues and conceive of new frameworks. Lovelace’s collaborative intellectual work connects us with thinkers across centuries and continents, to build new knowledge on collective foundations, strengthening and diversifying discussions about the ethical and social implications of data and AI.

The Ada Lovelace Institute was named not only to honour the memory of Ada Lovelace but also to extend her impact into twenty-first century technological societies. In our work, we use research and deliberation to interrogate the outcomes and effects of AI and data-driven technologies in the present and future. We work with government, society and industry to develop ethical practice in the design, development and deployment of these technologies, and – where it exists – celebrate best practice.

And – most importantly – we work to cut through the noise, bluster and misinformation that surrounds emerging technologies, to promote debate and informed public understanding, and amplify the voices that need to be heard to make sure AI and data-driven technologies work for diverse groups of people and societies. We hope that Ada would recognise these curious, informed and connective aims, and support our work to lay the foundations for a socially inclusive technological society with wellbeing at its core.

We are grateful for the continuing support of the Nuffield Foundation, and look forward to working closely with the Alan Turing Institute, the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Statistical Society, the Wellcome Trust, Luminate, techUK and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, as well as colleagues at AI Now, the Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation, DataKind UK, Data & Society, Doteveryone, the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Open Data Institute, and in organisations and educational institutions across the world…