David De Roure

Pro­fes­sor, Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

‘Ada Lovelace was a gifted math­e­ma­ti­cian and com­puter pro­gram­mer, but the more I stud­ied her, the more I dis­cov­ered how very im­por­tant mu­sic and cre­ativ­ity were to her too.’

Acom­puter that com­poses mu­sic? Even in our era of ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy, the pos­si­bil­ity that a ma­chine might be able to cre­ate orig­i­nal works of art is one that’s stretch­ing the world’s bright­est sci­en­tists, artists and pro­gram­mers. Yet it’s ar­guably an idea as old as com­put­ing it­self.

Ever since the first in­car­na­tion of the com­puter, back in the 19th cen­tury, its power be­yond the realm of num­bers has been recog­nised.

The per­son who first iden­ti­fied its po­ten­tial was Ada Lovelace, a pi­o­neer of com­puter pro­gram­ming, and to­day an im­por­tant role model for women in science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics.

Lovelace’s pro­gram­ming cre­den­tials are unique and re­mark­able but the ex­tent of her ac­com­plish­ment is even more ex­cit­ing and sig­nif­i­cant. While she stud­ied maths and un­der­stood com­pu­ta­tion with per­cep­tions well ahead of her time, she grasped that com­put­ers could do more than process num­bers. She saw that they could also reach into our so­cial and cre­ative lives – and might even one day gen­er­ate mu­sic. But how did she come to draw this ground­break­ing con­clu­sion?

Per­haps it was in part down to her two very dif­fer­ent par­ents, one artis­tic, the other sci­en­tific in in­cli­na­tion. Au­gusta Ada was born in De­cem­ber 1815, the only child of an un­happy and short-lived mar­riage be­tween the in­fa­mous Ro­man­tic poet By­ron and the strictly moral and math­e­mat­i­cally ed­u­cated Anne Is­abella Mil­banke. Ada never knew her fa­ther and was brought up by her mother, fol­low­ing her ed­u­ca­tional path which fo­cused on mu­sic, French and math­e­mat­ics. Ada’s im­pres­sive ar­ray of teach­ers and men­tors in­cluded the renowned poly­math and writer Mary Somerville, who was the first per­son to be de­scribed in print as a ‘sci­en­tist’ – be­cause ‘man of science’ was thought in­ap­pro­pri­ate – and along with as­tronomer Caro­line Her­schel was one of the first fe­male mem­bers of the Royal As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety. An­other fa­mous tu­tor, Au­gus­tus De Morgan, is a name fa­mil­iar to­day to any stu­dent of logic.

Lovelace’s in­tel­lect was for­mi­da­ble. ‘That En­chantress who has thrown her magic spell around the most ab­stract of Sciences has grasped it with a force which few mas­cu­line in­tel­lects

(in our coun­try at least) could have ex­erted,’ re­ported the math­e­ma­ti­cian Charles Bab­bage, one of a cir­cle of in­tel­lec­tu­als with whom she was friends. Ada Lovelace – as she be­came when her hus­band Wil­liam King, whom she mar­ried at the age of 20, be­came the first Earl of Lovelace – knew the sci­en­tists Michael Fara­day, Charles Wheat­stone, nurse and so­cial re­former Florence Nightin­gale and novelist Charles Dick­ens.

But it was Lovelace’s friend­ship with Bab­bage that is piv­otal to this story. They met through Somerville in 1833, when Lovelace was 17 and Bab­bage was 42. In the 1820s, Bab­bage had in­vented his first me­chan­i­cal com­puter, the Dif­fer­ence En­gine, which he took de­light in mak­ing the cen­tre­piece of his soirées. De Morgan’s wife, Sophia, later wrote: ‘While other vis­i­tors gazed at the work­ing of this beau­ti­ful

‘‘ Ada Lovelace grasped that com­put­ers might reach into our cre­atives lives and one day gen­er­ate mu­sic ’’

in­stru­ment with the sort of ex­pres­sion, and I dare say the sort of feel­ing, that some sav­ages are said to have shown on first see­ing a look­ing-glass or hear­ing a gun… Miss By­ron, young as she was, un­der­stood its work­ing, and saw the great beauty of the in­ven­tion.’

Bab­bage was an ex­cep­tional poly­math and en­gi­neer, and the next com­puter he de­signed, the steam-pow­ered An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine, re­mark­ably an­tic­i­pated the de­sign of com­put­ers that would come a cen­tury later. It was never built but Lovelace en­gaged closely with Bab­bage and this hy­po­thet­i­cal ma­chine and the fruits of their col­lab­o­ra­tion ap­peared in print in 1843. Bab­bage had pre­sented the de­sign in a talk in Turin, tran­scribed into French by Luigi Menabrea, an Ital­ian gen­eral and math­e­ma­ti­cian who was later to serve as the prime min­is­ter of Italy. Lovelace was al­ready an ex­pert on the de­sign and back in Lon­don she was in­vited to trans­late No­tions sur la ma­chine an­a­ly­tique de Charles Bab­bage (El­e­ments of Charles Bab­bage’s An­a­lyt­i­cal Ma­chine) into English. In the process she tripled the length by adding her ‘Trans­la­tor’s Notes’ – and these have be­come her en­dur­ing con­tri­bu­tion to com­put­ing.

In those notes is the first pub­lished com­puter pro­gram, for which Lovelace is most fa­mous to­day. But while her con­tem­po­raries were fo­cused on the com­puter for cal­cu­la­tion, Lovelace tran­scended this im­me­di­ate am­bi­tion and of­fered other ex­tra­or­di­nary in­sights.

In ‘Note A’ Lovelace sug­gests the An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine ‘might act upon other things be­sides num­ber… Sup­pos­ing, for in­stance, that the fun­da­men­tal re­la­tions of pitched sounds in the science of har­mony and of 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’.

What did Lovelace mean by ‘sci­en­tific pieces of mu­sic’? Did she mean that the mu­sic would be sys­tem­atic, given the es­tab­lished rules of har­mony and coun­ter­point? Or per­haps it would be lack­ing in ex­pres­sion, be­ing gen­er­ated by a ma­chine and not by a hu­man? Of course, science and mu­sic had long been en­twined – the no­tion of sci­en­tific mu­sic pre­dates Lovelace, and hu­mans can com­pose ‘sci­en­tific’ mu­sic too. Chris­tian Huy­gens, the 17th-cen­tury Dutch sci­en­tist, railed against it, wish­ing that com­posers ‘would not seek what is the most ar­ti­fi­cial or most dif­fi­cult to in­vent, but what af­fects the ear most’.

A pos­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tion is the use of the sys­tems ex­er­cised in canons and fugues, where the mu­sic re­peats pat­terns which are trans­posed, in­verted and re­versed. For ex­am­ple, in a ‘crab canon’ the same line is played back­wards and for­wards si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and in JS Bach’s The Mu­si­cal Of­fer­ing one player turns the mu­sic up­side down. Lovelace was also in­ter­ested in ‘magic squares’, the an­cient puz­zle of as­sem­bling num­bers in a square so that adding up rows, col­umns or di­ag­o­nals gives the same num­ber. These have since been used in mu­sic by com­posers such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

It is no sur­prise that Lovelace was think­ing about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween maths, ma­chines and mu­sic. She was a pi­anist, singer and ded­i­cated harpist, and her let­ters show that she put mu­sic on a par with maths. In 1837

‘‘ Lovelace was a pi­anist, singer and ded­i­cated harpist, and her let­ters show that she put mu­sic on a par with maths ’’

she told Somerville, ‘I play four or five hours gen­er­ally, and never less than three’. Lovelace also spon­sored the young John Thomas, who was to be­come a ma­jor vir­tu­oso-com­poser harpist in the 19th cen­tury, ap­pointed to Queen Vic­to­ria and whose works, such as The Min­strel’s Adieu to his Na­tive Land, are pop­u­lar pieces to­day. Lovelace was proud of her voice and we know she sang arias from Bellini’s Norma, fash­ion­able in the 1830s, to an au­di­ence in her li­brary.

Also in ‘Note A’, Lovelace writes that ‘we may say most aptly that the An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine weaves al­ge­braical pat­terns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flow­ers and leaves’, re­mind­ing us that she had seen the Jacquard looms in op­er­a­tion. Their use of punched cards for pro­gram­ming was des­tined to be adopted in the An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine, well ahead of their mid 20th-cen­tury man­i­fes­ta­tion in main­frame com­put­ers.

But it is Lovelace’s com­ments in ‘Note G’ that have pro­voked most de­bate. She states that

‘the An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine has no pre­ten­sions to orig­i­nate any­thing. It can do what­ever we know how to or­der it to per­form’. In other words, even if their ca­pa­bil­i­ties can be ap­plied to the arts, com­put­ers can’t come up with any­thing fun­da­men­tally new. Alan Tur­ing dis­puted what he called ‘Lady Lovelace’s Ob­jec­tion’ in his sem­i­nal 1950 paper Com­put­ing Ma­chin­ery and In­tel­li­gence, while Mar­garet Bo­den, one of to­day’s poly­maths, de­fined ‘the Lovelace Ques­tions’ in her 1990 book The Cre­ative Mind. She teased apart the dif­fer­ences be­tween com­put­ers help­ing hu­man cre­ativ­ity, ap­pear­ing cre­ative, recog­nis­ing cre­ativ­ity, and cre­at­ing. With the ris­ing adop­tion of Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) tech­niques in com­put­ing to­day, these ques­tions are more salient than ever.

Lovelace’s life was cut short by can­cer at the age of 36. We don’t know what she would have done next, but we can en­joy spec­u­la­tion in Syd­ney Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Ad­ven­tures of Lovelace and Bab­bage (2015), and Gib­son and Ster­ling’s The Dif­fer­ence En­gine (1990), the found­ing novel of the steam­punk genre. The re­cent Ada Lovelace: The Mak­ing of a Com­puter Sci­en­tist by Hollings, Martin and Rice pro­vides com­pelling ev­i­dence for Lovelace’s iconic sta­tus in science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and maths. But mu­sic and the arts were far more im­por­tant to Lovelace than many ac­counts men­tion. She is a role model for in­ter­dis­ci­plinar­ity (see box, left), em­body­ing both the arts and the sciences with­out dis­tinc­tion be­tween them, in or­der to trans­form our un­der­stand­ing.

First Ada: (op­po­site) a da­guerreo­type of Lovelace at the pi­ano in 1843; (above) a por­trait of her as a child

Dream ma­chine: (above) a model of the pi­o­neer­ing An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine; (above right) Charles Bab­bage, pic­tured around the time that he worked with Lovelace; (below) Lovelace’s teacher, the poly­math Mary Somerville

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