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Lady Lovelace’s Conjecture
June 18, 2012
8:53 am
David Erskine


Those familiar with computers will know Lady Lovelace’s Conjecture. In the 1840s, Charles Babbage built a Difference Engine, a mechanical computer to calculate mathematical and astronomical tables, and held soirees to which he invited rich and prominent people with a view of getting backing. One of these guests was Ada, Countess Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, of all people. She was clever and good at mathematics.


She gave herself the job of setting instructions for the Difference Engine, and so is regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Charles Babbage would have been the first person in world history to be asked whether his machine could think, or think for itself, but we do not know his answer. But we do know Ada’s answer, she being the second person in world history to be asked such a question.


She had seen how the Difference Engine worked, and she was adamant that the machine did exactly what it was told to do, no more, no less. The machine did what you told it to do, not what you intended to tell it to do. When I started in computers in the early seventies, one language used by Digital Equipment Corp was Assembly language, just a step or so above machine language. Debugging such programs was illuminating, because it was obvious that the computer did exactly what it was told.


Some computers today are enormous, such as computers which predict weather or simulate new aircraft designs, but it makes no difference, they do what they are told. Mere size makes no difference.


We are conscious and show initiative, and then there seems no reason in principle why computers could not be the same, but it is not clear to me how computers could become conscious and show initiative. It is true that computers running very large and complicated programs can do things which are unpredictable, but they are still deterministic. ‘Hal’ in the film 2001 a Space Odyssey, was conscious, and seemed to show initiative, but a computer could still run a space ship and converse with its crew, and be neither conscious nor show initiative. This is an important point.

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