Ada Lovelace: ahead of her time

As the world celebrates Ada Lovelace Day, we look at the impact that the 19th century mathematician has had on today’s tech industry.

Young male and female developers looking at code on a screen trying to solve an issue
Ada Lovelace Portrait

It’s hard to imagine today’s world without computer programs. They have enabled us to reach the moon and power everything from our smartphones to our cars. Visionary mathematician Ada Lovelace could hardly have foreseen the impact she would have when she first conceived the idea of programming a machine to perform calculations back in the 1840s.

So significant was her work that when the US Department of Defence developed a computer programming language in the 1970s to override and supercede the hundreds of languages then being used by the military, they called it Ada. It is still in use today, operating real-time systems in finance, healthcare, transport, aviation, and the space industry.

Lovelace, also known by her hereditary title, the Countess of Lovelace, was the daughter of British poet Lord Byron and her mother was an esteemed mathematician that he nicknamed ‘The Princess of Parallelograms’. In her teens Lovelace became friends with computer pioneer Charles Babbage and was fascinated by his early designs for an Analytical Engine, which was a forerunner of today’s computers.

Visionary thinking

While the machine was never built, in 1842 Lovelace translated a paper on the Analytical Engine from French into English and included her own notes. Within these notes she gave plans for a series of punch cards that could be used by the machine to calculate a sequence of rational numbers, the Bernoulli numbers.

Her ideas went far beyond those of her contemporaries. Lovelace was the first person to suggest that a computer could be more than just an over-sized calculator. Her radical idea was that the numerical values produced by the computer could be used to represent something other than numbers, such as symbols, musical notes and pretty much anything else – not everyone was convinced.

To put her achievement in context, she conceptualized the first computer program just two years after the first postage stamp was created and eight years before the state of California – now famous as the home of Silicon Valley – was founded. And women in her home country of England would not be able to vote for more than 80 years.

Although Lovelace’s life was tragically cut short at just 36, by the mid-19th century she had already laid the first foundation stone of today’s modern tech industry and she was the inspiration for much of what was to follow in the world of computing.

Inspiring female pioneers

It wasn’t until more than 100 years after Lovelace wrote the first computer program that the first full-time, paid programmers began work. Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman were chosen from a pool of ‘human calculators’ at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering in Pennsylvania and charged with ENIAC (the first electronic general-purpose digital computer). They struggled to win recognition for their achievements and were dismissively labelled ‘refrigerator ladies’.

Computer programming soon began to gather pace and in 1952 American computer scientist Grace Hopper developed a system that could convert plain English into computer code. This later became COBOL, a computer language still used today in data processing. COBOL was designed for UNIVAC, one of the first large-scale electronic computers. When she first suggested the idea people were again dismissive, saying that computers ‘couldn’t understand English’.

Passing the test

Even in a world of artificial intelligence that is far beyond what could have been imagined in her lifetime, Lovelace’s name and ideas continue to resonate loudly. As the Turing Test to define whether a machine is intelligent has lost credibility in the face of ever cleverer programs, the Lovelace Test, developed in 2001, has maintained it.

The Turing Test requires a machine to trick someone into thinking they are communicating with another person and has been beaten several times by machines. The Lovelace Test, however, is based on the idea that humans are creative. The researchers behind it developed a test in which an AI would be asked to create something – perhaps a story or a poem – and the test would be passed only if the AI’s programmer could not explain how it came up with its answer.

The Lovelace test is based on her own writing in the 1840s, in which she said: “(The Analytical Engine) has no pretentions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”

It is perhaps a tragedy after the example set by Ada Lovelace and those women who came after her that our How the STEM World Works research women still remain underrepresented in IT roles. In fact, research by the Pew Research Centre found that only 25% of those working in computer-related jobs in the US were female. Employers will have to make workplaces more attractive to female staff in future if they are to fill key positions and nurture the female visionaries of the future.

Discover how organisations can attract more women into STEM.

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