Enchantress of Number- Ada Lovelace

Original article was published by Flurgo Editor on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Enchantress of Number- Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace / Illustration: DFlurgo

It all started with Ada wanting to fly. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was born on December 1815, to Lord and Lady Byron in London. By the age of twelve, she wanted to fly, but like other twelve-year-olds, her’s was not just wishful thinking but a scientific quest.

“Ada Byron went about the project methodically, thoughtfully, with imagination and passion. Her first step, in February 1828, was to construct wings. She investigated different material and sizes. She considered various materials for the wings: paper, oil silk, wires, and feathers. She examined the anatomy of birds to determine the right proportion between the wings and the body. She decided to write a book, Flyology, illustrating, with plates, some of her findings. She decided what equipment she would need; for example, a compass, to “cut across the country by the most direct road” so that she could surmount mountains, rivers, and valleys. Her final step was to integrate steam with the ‘art of flying’.” ¹

*The first successful powered aircraft was finally built in 1903 by the Wright Brothers.

By seventeen her talent in mathematics began to flourish and she came in contact with Charles Babbage (1791- 1871), who was first to create the Difference Engine, an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions ². By 1842 Ada was commissioned to translate an article by Luigi Menabrea on Babbage’s 1840, University of Turin lecture on his Analytical Engine, the first proposed design for a general-purpose computer. In this article, Ada added a set of notes which were three times the length of the original article. Along with describing in details the functions of the Analytical Engine, she presented a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, a sequence of rational numbers which occur frequently in number theory ³, using this engine. This method is now known as the world’s first published computer algorithm .

The idea that Ada Lovelace is the “first computer programmer” stands contested today. Allan G. Bromley, Doron Swade, Eric Kim and Betty Alexandra Toole argues that Babbage himself had written several unpublished algorithms years before Ada. Stephen Wolfram, on the other hand, argued that “there’s nothing as sophisticated — or as clean — as Ada’s computation of the Bernoulli numbers” and she realised in her work the “…exposition of the abstract operations of the machine — something which Babbage never did.”

Thus Ada’s contribution was more fundamental than writing algorithms.

Ada, pioneered the idea of the Analytical Engine’s capacity to solve complex problems, unlike any other calculating device. Commenting on the potential of the Analytical Engine she wrote

“[It] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Doron Swade, historian of computing makes it clear that

“Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world, his engines were bound by number…What Lovelace saw…was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation — to general-purpose computation — and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.”

After years of obscurity, Ada Lovelace reemerged in the ’50s and by December 1980 she got a computer language named after her by the United States Department of Defence. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, her famous Note G. came under scrutiny. She had dismissed “Artificial Intelligence” in relation to the Analytical Engine’s potential stating

“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions 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.”

This point till date remains highly controversial and often debated. Alan Turing rebutted Lovelace’s objection stating that the assertion that computers “can never take us by surprise” holds little ground. It is argued that if Lady Lovelace had access to the modern scientific knowledge she would have a different understanding. Thus her view needs to be considered keeping in mind the historical context and the potential of Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

Recently Ada’s assertion that only when a machine can originate an idea that it was designed to it can be considered intelligent par the human standards became the game-changer in developing AI. The Turing test which is considered to be the bedrock of AI is now being looked from a fresh perspective. Selmer Bringsjord, one of the designers of the Lovelace Test told Vice’s Jordan Pearson that despite being a huge Turing fan he finds the method “inadequate”. When the chatbot named Eugene Goostman passed Turing’s measure of machine intelligence it was realised that AI is “coming only on the strength of clever but shallow trickery” ¹⁰ and is just symbol manipulation designed to trick. The Lovelace Test as proposed by Selmer Bringsjord, Paul Bello and David Ferrucci harps on the idea that

“…A better test is one that insists on a certain restrictive epistemic relation between an artificial agent (or system) A, its output O, and the human architect H of A — a relation which roughly speaking, obtains when H cannot account for how A produced O thus bringing in the criteria that the computer has to produce something new, be it a program or novel or music.” ¹¹

This perspective is something that we are getting closer and closer to with each passing innovation.

We often get polarised with ideas or opinions by often forgetting the historical context in which they had originated from. Ada Lovelace, the girl who wanted to fly, had the keen sense to understand the ideas of machines. Whether she was the first computer programmer or not or whether Lovelace Test is better than the Turing Test makes no difference to the fact that she was a pioneer whose fundamental inquisitiveness has advanced the way we think of machines and technology at large. Ada Lovelace will always remain an inspiration and the reason for debate and challenges which will only take us forward in our quest to better this world and serve humanity ethically and responsibly collaborating with technology.

On this Ada Lovelace Day, we at Flurgo want to take the opportunity to celebrate her life and contribution along with all the women pioneers who inspired us to create this platform for the community of women in technology.


  1. Toole, Betty Alexandra (1987), “Poetical Science”, The Byron Journal

2. “Difference Engine” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 August 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Difference_engine

3. “Bernoulli Number” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 September 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernoulli_number

4. “Ada Lovelace” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 September 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace

5. Fuegi, J; Francis, J (October–December 2003), “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes’” (PDF), Annals of the History of Computing

6. Lovelace, Ada; Menabrea, Luigi (1842). “Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq”. Scientific Memoirs. Richard Taylor: 694.

7. Fuegi, J; Francis, J (October–December 2003), “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes’” (PDF), Annals of the History of Computing

8. Bowden, B.V., ed. (1953). Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. London: Pitman.

9. Jordan Pearson, Forget Turing, the Lovelace Test Has a Better Shot at Spotting AI, vice.com, Vice Media Group, 09 July 2014, https://www.vice.com/en/article/pgaany/forget-turing-the-lovelace-test-has-a-better-shot-at-spotting-ai

10. Selmer Bringsjord, Paul Bello, David Ferducci, Creativity, The Turing Test, and the (Better) Lovelace Test, Mind and Machines 2001, Kulwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands, http://kryten.mm.rpi.edu/lovelace.pdf

11. Selmer Bringsjord, Paul Bello, David Ferducci, Creativity, The Turing Test, and the (Better) Lovelace Test, Mind and Machines 2001, Kulwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands, kryten.mm.rpi.edu/lovelace.pdf