Where Did Computers’ Brains Come From?

Ever since Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program more than 150 years ago, scientists have been theorizing about how far algorithms can go.

Ada Lovelace. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 18, 2015· 1 MIN READ

What if machines could do more than process numbers? In today’s whiz-bang computer culture, we take the answer for granted, but in the mid-1800s, computers were little more than an abstract idea. Ada Lovelace pondered the question while coding the first algorithms for a general-purpose computing device, known as the Analytical Engine.

The machine operated much like the Jacquard loom, which sewed patterns by using a network of gears and punch cards. Only, instead of sewing flowers on tablecloths, the Analytical Engine was working out complex mathematical formulas. Lovelace wrote what many consider to be the first “computer program” when she mapped out each step of the algorithm that the machine was using.

While writing out this program, Lovelace recognized the potential of abstracting algorithms to solve all sorts of problems, not just crunch numbers, as she observed in her notes: “The engine may be described as being the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.”

As an example, she hypothesized in her notes about a program that could make music: “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.”

Alfred V. Aho, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, says Lovelace’s insight into the possibilities of computers was remarkable for the time: “I am particularly impressed that she understood the power of abstraction,” he says. “She knew what an algorithm was and that machines that manipulated numbers could manipulate any data represented by numbers.”

Aho points out that computer scientists are still abstracting algorithms and asking even more profound questions: “Can we ultimately construct computer programs to simulate human qualities like happiness, [sorrow], love, hate? How about consciousness?”

It sounds like we won’t be trying to cheer up our emotional computers in the near future, though. Aho says, “Creating these extensions is still very much an open research problem. It’s not clear this problem will be solved anytime soon.”

In the meantime, the work started by Lovelace remains the premise of code today, driving our digital world and coming to life in new ways; one example is “computational sustainability”—the use of computer science to solve real-word challenges. You can see it in action in Kenya, where cell phone apps are being given to herders to share the state of grazing sites. The aim is to address the problems created by climate change, drought, civil unrest, and land-use issues that are threatening food security.

Innovative abstractions of algorithms (that is, new ways to code) like computational sustainability are encouraging, but they are just the beginning. Given how far computing has come since Ada Lovelace’s time, we can only imagine what will be possible 150 years from now.

This piece is part of our six-part series “Woman Scientist All-Stars,” presented with the film Interstellar. We are remembering women scientists who have helped to shape our world and who still inspire us to reach for the stars.