Fogland Lighthouse – Episode 15: Thinking Machines

“Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds….may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.” Ada Byron

Presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-run non-profit telling stories about how things could be.

Content warnings: death, incest, mental illness.

Transcript:

This equals Fogland Lighthouse. I equals Jack Dean.

Picture a thought. It forms, somewhere among the labyrinthine synapses of the mind, a product of coalescing electrical signals. It grows in the brain of its thinker, becoming unavoidable, unignorable, all-encompassing, until it drives the sinews and bones of the body to bring itself into a shape in the physical world outside, the painting on the cave wall, the handaxe hewn from flint, the Sega Dreamcast. Viewed from this angle, we are all janky 3-D printers for ideas. Viewed from a similar angle, any sufficiently advanced act of imagination is indistinguishable from madness.

Picture a girl called Ada. She is born to Lord and Lady Byron, the great power couple of the 1810s, but the household she is born into contains as much screaming and crying from her parents as from her. Her mother Anabelle is convinced that her husband is mad. There is plenty of evidence for this, the violent mood swings, unrestrained alcoholism, a possible affair with his own half-sister. But we cannot make a window into Byron’s mind. All we can say for certain is that the machinery of their marriage was flawed from the design phase . Annabelle moves out of the house with Ada when the latter is just five weeks old, and neither of them ever see him again. Anabelle makes it her life’s work to instil in Ada a set of qualities that will insulate her from the madness that she fears she will inherit along the paternal line, a madness she views as inextricably linked with imagination. She does this with a rigorous plan of education, the main way in which humans are programmed. Logic, science and mathematics are at the forefront of this curriculum, a practice unheard-of in the teaching of girls. Picture Ada at the age of twelve watching the flights of birds and butterflies, and not merely dreaming of being a winged princess or fairy, but compiling a book on their mechanical processes called “Flyology”, complete with illustrated diagrams and research on the best materials for wings, and uses of steam power, that could help her realise that dream.

Picture her aged seventeen, whirling through high society, dressed to the nines, unashamedly femme, unabashedly bright. This nets her a rich husband and with it the reputable title of Countess Lovelace, sure, but the more intense and catalysing relationship is the platonic one she forms with Charles Babbage. The age and gender gap means little to them, they are two mathematicians, two kindred spirits, the two first computer scientists, two meat-based processing units operating on the same wavelength.

  Picture a loom, its heddles, shuttles, rods and beams separating warp and weft. Picture a weaver painstakingly arranging these parts by hand to bring a pattern from his mind out onto the fabric. Picture a Frenchman, I know its unpleasant, but just try. Picture this Frenchman, one Monsieur Jacquard, wanting to quicken this process, and tweaking this age-old machinery to accept not the inputs of a hand, but those of a series of punchcards threaded together. Viewed from a certain angle, this is the first non-biological computer. Viewed from any angle, it electrifies the mind of Babbage, who wants to take it one step further. The same punchcards, but feeding into a machine that creates not patterns in fabric, but solutions to mathematical questions. He calls it the Difference Engine. He gets the British government to part with staggering amounts of money to fund the construction of this machine, but only ever manages to finish a smaller prototype, hefty in its own right but only one seventh of the full Engine’s intended size. Maybe it’s the cost of metals, maybe it is disagreements with his engineer, maybe it is the roving ambitions of Babbage’s mind, which moves on to a new and improved version of the machine before the old one is even built. This one he calls the Analytical Engine. Wikipedia calls it “a special-purpose machine designed to tabulate logarithms and trigonometric functions by evaluating finite differences to create approximating polynomials”. Your brain might be a machine that can turn those words into something meaningful. Mine isn’t, and that’s ok. They probably didn’t compute very well to the brains of the government either, who had thrown money at one unfinished project for over a decade, hoping for vast improvements in the machinery of state, but getting only what looked to them like a massive hand-cranked toy, and now were being asked to fund a new one. They perform the ancient equation known colloquially as cutting your losses, and tell Babbage to look elsewhere.

Picture Ada seeing the prototype of the Difference engine, hearing Babbage describe its sequel, understanding its possibilities, joining forces with Babbage to work on the design. Picture correspondence going back and forth, the two exchanging ideas, praise, encouragement. Picture her on a public relations drive for the machine, bringing to bear the charm and persuasive skills that Babbage often lacks. Picture European academics getting word of the Engine, seeing the potential that British bureaucrats can’t. Picture a packed-out lecture hall in Turin, all tuned in to Babbage’s tales of constants and variables. Picture an Italian Engineer writing an article about what he heard. Picture Ada translating this article for publication in England, adding a steadily increasing pile of notes alongside it, notes that eventually become three times longer than the article itself. The job becomes less translating French to English and more translating abstract theory to concrete functionality, the madness of imagination into the relative sanity of literature. Among them is Note G, a set of tabulated instructions for a machine that doesn’t exist yet. The world’s first published computer programme, written by hands that society thought only fit for cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. We are all broken machines, but sometimes our broken bits create the most wonderful outputs. The notes also contain a paragraph that changes everything. Ada sees that the Analytical engine can treat the numbers fed into it not only as quantities, but as stand-ins for anything in the world, musical notation, coordinates, letters. This machine doesn’t just have to add, subtract or multiply numbers. It could think.

Picture the Analytical Engine languishing in the blue-print pile of history along with its predecessor. Babbage keeps tinkering with it until his death. Ada moves on, developing an interest in creating a mathematical model for the human brain, and a separate one for winning large bets on horse racing. These leave her with a handful of vague notes and several thousand pounds of gambling debts. When every idea you have is eschewed by most people as bonkers, how do you separate the half that prove them wrong from the half that prove them right? Ada always rejected the idea that non-human machines could think independently. For her, however clever they were, they could only give out what you put in. We’re still waiting for a solid answer on whether she was right, like two old friends, gathered around a small mountain of winding gears, waiting to see if a thought can become reality.

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