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Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing: the denial of gender and the escape into the rational mind

Ada King, countess of Lovelace (1815–52), was a brilliant English mathematician. She is often called the first programmer in history. She wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, even foreseeing the scope of algorithms to process data beyond numerical calculations, which no one had yet begun to conceive. A programming language named Ada has been developed in her honor.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the romantic poet Lord Byron. He and his social entourage were disappointed with her gender and he soon separated from both her mother and England. Byron died when Ada was nine.

Ada’s mother arranged the girl’s life to avoid any contact with either her father or his attitude toward life. She considered Lord Byron insane and, worrying her daughter might share it, educated Ada in mathematics from a very early age, even through prolonged health problems constrained the girl to bedrest. Ada Lovelace died at 36 from uterine cancer and requested to burial next to Lord Byron, finally joining the father she never knew.

Alan Turing (1912–54), English mathematician and cryptoanalyst, had enormous influence on computer science. His Turing machine incorporated important advances in the formalization of algorithms and computability. Turing conceived the Turing Test which defined a “thinking machine” as one that fooled a person into believing s/he was having a conversation through a keyboard with a human being in a remote location. During the Second World War his cryptoanalysis was fundamental in breaking the German ciphers, contributing to the defeat of Nazism.

In his era, homosexuality in England was subject to criminal prosecution. In 1952, after admitting to having sex with a young man, Turing was given the choice between incarceration or a treatment with female hormones (“to reduce the libido”). How absurd that after helping save his country from Nazism, it treated him as a criminal. In 1954, Turing died of poisoning. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of the British government for the way he was treated.

Jaron Lanier, in “One Half a Manifesto,” commented on the tragic death of Turing in these terms:

Turing died in an apparent suicide brought on by his having developed breasts as a result of enduring a hormonal regimen intended to reverse his homosexuality. It was during this tragic final period of his life that he argued passionately for machine sentience, and I have wondered whether he was engaging in a highly original new form of psychological escape and denial; running away from sexuality and mortality by becoming a computer.

I think the denial is deeper than the sexuality issue: It has to do with the denial of anything but the “pure” Cartesian mind, including the body and sensuousness. With both pillars of contemporary IT we see how a denial of sexual identity, the sensuous and non-rational world shaped their lives. Lovelace’s gender was rejected by her father, while her mother pushed her toward a purely rational life. The law repressed Alan Turing’s homosexuality, as he likely did himself.

The mind is regarded as the most important human feature and the identification with it is so deep that we want to reproduce it on machines, becoming creators in our turn. We even have developed a test to ascertain the “intelligence” of a machine.

Joseph Weizenbaum in 1964 created Eliza, an interactive program that simulated a Rogerian psychotherapist. Weizenbaum himself was surprised and concerned to see that users were taking its words seriously. While the mind can surely be simulated, this tell us nothing about what’s going on inside. However it does underscore how much the mind can be fooled and how we can actually behave mechanistically.

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