Beyond Numbers: Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day at the Brighton Digital Festival 2018

By Ioann Maria and Sharon Webb.

Held annually on the second Tuesday in October, Ada Lovelace Day recognises the accomplishments of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), while also celebrating Ada Lovelace herself as a pioneer of computing science. The overarching aims of the annual event are to increase the profile of women in STEM, and to create and to highlight role-models, so that we can encourage diversity and representation in computer science, in software engineering, and in the sciences more broadly. In 2018 the Sussex Humanities Lab celebrated Ada Lovelace Day with an event called Beyond Numbers.

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Ioann Maria and Sharon Webb

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815. She was encouraged by her mother, Annabella Byron, to study arithmetic, music, and French. It’s been suggested that Ada’s strict study regime was a deliberate attempt to suppress Ada’s imagination, since Ada’s mother was fearful of her ‘dangerous and potentially destructive,’ imagination given the eccentrics of Ada’s estranged father, Lord Byron (Essinger, 2014).

By the time she was thirteen, Ada Lovelace had already designed a mechanical bird. At the age of eighteen Lovelace formally met Charles Babbage, who would later be heralded as the father of computing science. She became intrigued with Babbage’s proposed “Difference Engine.” Over the years Ada Lovelace studied and translated the maths associated with both Babbage’s Difference Engine and its sequel, the Analytical Engine, as well as the Jacquard Loom. In 1843, translating and annotating Luigi Menabrea’s paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she developed a formula for computing Bernoulli numbers. On the basis of this work — a program to be executed upon machine that did not yet exist — Lovelace has been hailed as the world’s first computer programmer.

But unlike Babbage and Menabrea, who only saw the number-crunching potential of this machine, Ada Lovelace also proposed that if a machine could manipulate numbers then it could do so for any type of “data.” Indeed, the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ (as Babbage is credited with describing her) stated that the Analytical Engine ‘might act upon other things besides numbers,’ and that for instance, it might ‘compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.’

The Beyond Numbers event, organised by Ioann Maria and Dr Sharon Webb, coincided with Ada Lovelace Day. It was specifically interested in exploring the potential identified by Ada Lovelace for machines to ‘act upon other things besides numbers.’ The aim of the event was to celebrate women, non-binary, and transgender scientists, artists, musicians, researchers and thinkers whose works are based on scientific, technological and/or mathematical methods. 

The event opened with Sharon Webb’s historical overview of the role of women in technology, entitled “When Computers Were People,” which also called out the current gender gap in computer science. She was followed by a session from Kate Howland (University of Sussex, Lecturer in Interactive Design) entitled “Talking Programming,” in which Kate gave an outline of her research on designing voice user interfaces for end-user programming in home automation. Cécile Chevalier, Lecturer in Media Practice at the University of Sussex, spoke on “Automata, Automatism and Instrument-Making Toward Computational Corporeal Expressions.” In thinking of the body, technology and expression in computational art, Cecile offered a retrospective of her own artwork. Brighton-based audio-visual artist Akiko Haruna gave a talk on A/V and electronic music scene touching on “Self-Value in the Face of Ego,” where her focus was on encouraging all women to explore the world of electronic music and audio-visual art. She spoke of her personal experiences and the many ways in which digital sound as a medium has liberated her work. Estela Oliva, London-based artist and curator, spoke of “Hybrid Worlds, New Realities,” presenting her new project CLON in which she interrogates the possibilities of new spaces enabled with virtual and immersive technologies such as gaming, 3D video, and virtual reality. Irene Fubara-Manuel in her talk “An Auto-Ethnographic Account of Virtual Borders” presented her piece “Dreams of Disguise” (2018), a traversal of the virtual border through racialized biometric technologies: a project that blurs documentary truth with science fiction to reveal the ubiquitous surveillance of migrants and the rising desire for opacity. The event closed with Ioann Maria’s “Contra-Control Structures” talk on hacktivism, cyberactivism, and women, with an outline of her first-hand experience in creating physical DIY creative spaces.

The day was a fusion of science and creative arts. It reached beyond the “numerical” and provided a friendly space for the local community to find out about one another — a space to share, to engage, and to collaborate.

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As a direct result of Beyond Numbers and the positive feedback this event received, FACT///  (Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network) was established by Cécile Chevalier, Sharon Webb, and Ioann Maria Stacewicz. In keeping with the aspirations and goals of Ada Lovelace Day, FACT/// Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network seeks to promote dialogue, collaboration, and support diverse voices in transdisciplinary computational thinking and environments. The first FACT/// forum was held on Thursday, 7th March at the Sussex Humanities Lab. For more details see fact.networkFACT/// is a CHASE Feminist Network Award and also supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab.

#AdaBeyondNumbers on the web:

About Sharon:

Sharon Webb is a Digital Humanities Lecturer in the Sussex Humanities Lab and the School of History, Art History and Philosophy. Sharon is a historian of Irish associational culture and nationalism (eighteenth and nineteenth century) and a digital humanities practitioner, with a background in requirements/user analysis, digital preservation, digital archiving, text encoding and data modelling. Sharon also has programming and coding experience and has contributed to the successful development of major national digital infrastructures.

Sharon’s current research interests include community archives and identity, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ archives, social network analysis (method and theory), and research data management. She holds a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award 2018 on the topic of community archives and digital preservation, working with a number of community projects, including Queer in Brighton.

Sharon is currently running a twelve-month project funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award (2018), ‘Identity, Representation and Preservation in Community Digital Archives and Collections’. This project is an intervention in three important areas: community archives, digital preservation, and content representation. For more details see www.preservingcommunityarchives.co.uk.

About Ioann Maria:

Ioann Maria is a new media artist, filmmaker, and computer scientist. Ioann’s work is focused on hacktivism, electronic surveillance, computer security, human-machine interaction, and interactive physical systems. In her solo and collaborative projects she explores new methods in real-time audio-visual performance.

Ioann is co-founder of the Edinburgh Hacklab, Scotland’s first hackerspace. She was formerly an Artistic Director of LPM Live Performers Meeting, the world’s largest annual meeting dedicated to live video performance and new creative technologies, and a Research Technician in Digital Humanities at the Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex, which is dedicated to developing and expanding research into how digital technologies are shaping our culture and society.

Intelligent Futures: Automation, AI and Cognitive Ecologies

By Maisie Ridgway

Intelligent Futures was a postgraduate and ECR conference, supported by CHASE DTP and Sussex Humanities Lab. Over the course of two days, the conference challenged researchers to find original, philosophical and cultural approaches to Artificial Intelligence. The interdisciplinary explorations spanned the social sciences, informatics, psychology, art, literature and more, promoting critical and speculative engagements with technical cognition.

Thomas Nyckel of the Technical University Braunschweig led the first panel, which sought to engage with AI from a philosophical standpoint. Nyckel’s paper fostered an alternative approach for understanding the processes of digital devices and computation through the variable definitions of the ‘rule of thumb’. Nyckel’s identified two categorisations of the rule of thumb – Frederick Taylor’s conception, concerned with exact scientific results, and Alan Turing’s interest in approximate computational methodologies. What materialised was a synthesis of ideas that challenged the nature and myth of scientific exactitude and complicated the binary of workman and machine, or the approximate rule of thumb and exact scientific methods. Mattia Paganelli followed Nyckel with a paper on the misnomer of ‘artificial’ when speaking of non‑human intelligence. Paganelli argued that the term shored up the binary between subject and object by attributing an a priori definition of the perimeter of possibility for a given system. Rather than artificial, Paganelli suggested the term ‘thinking machines’, understanding intelligence as a process of learning, plasticity and openness to name a few key attributes.

The next panel united speakers under the common theme of ethics. Camilla Elphick of the University of Sussex spoke about her ongoing project to develop an AI chatbot, named Spot, as a means by which victims of work place sexual harassment can report their experiences. Spot’s distinctly unhuman style of engagement meant that victims did not feel embarrassed, judged, scrutinised or pressured, garnering more accurate information. On an entirely different note, Marek Iwaniak’s paper explored how theologies and pre-technological religious imaginaries could engage with the novel challenge of AI. Iwaniak speculated on possible intersections between various religions and AI such as a Buddhist approach to technical cognition whereby the ultimate aim of developers could be an AI consciousness of pure bliss.

The final panel of the day explored changing ideas of writing, asking whether an anthropocentric conception of literary creativity obscured other forms of nonhuman creative generativity from view. John Phelan of the Open University investigated if AI could ever critically appreciate poetry or poetic significance outside of large sample readings of rhyme schemes for example. Emma Newport, from the University of Sussex, considered digitised end-of-life writing via the unusual case of the popular Mumsnet contributor IamtheZombie, whose posthumous in memoriam comments from fellow Mumsnet users formed an innovative kind of obituary, a cellular tissue of text that democratised the death process and made end-of-life writing a collaborative act.

Joanna Zylinska’s keynote speech, entitled ‘Creative Computers, Art Robots and AI Dreams,’ drew together the prevalent themes of the day, excavating the myth of the robot to determine that humans, especially the great artists amongst us, have always been technological. Zylinska used various art-AI projects, including Taryn Southern’s AI generated music and The Rembrandt Microsoft Project (involving AI creating an imitation Rembrandt painting), in order to interrogate the value of AI artistic production, delineate how our senses construct the world we inhabit, and ask what it means that seeing, for example, no longer requires a human looker. The result was a critique of AI as that which exponentially amplifies our desires and therefore marketability, as well as an optimism for the possible joys of robotic and AI art, described by Zylinska as ludic creation.

Day two began with a panel on epistemology. Emma Stamm of Virginia Tech presented a paper on the renaissance of psychedelic science and the implications this field could have for AI. Stamm described the importance of qualitative over quantitative methods of research, arguing that qualitative research into psychedelic drugs problematises the positivist and generalising principles of machine learning as a basis for AI. Juljan Krause from the University of Southampton followed with his thoughts on representations of quantum computing in popular science discourse. Krause offered an interesting overview of how the emerging technology of quantum computing functions differently from present modes of computation. He then explored media representations of quantum computation, which portray an ongoing quantum computational arms race (led by China).

The penultimate panel revolved around the theme of aesthetics. In his paper on art and artificial intelligence Michael Haworth reconfigured the relationship between human and machine as an equal coupling, a functional interdependence manifest in the example of AARON, the painting and drawing robot. Haworth relayed how the creativity of AARON rests in the relation between the program and programmer, an interplay that performs a structural shift from the human as tool user to the human as engineer and organiser. Following Haworth, Dominique Baron-Bonarjee presented a performative lecture during which she enacted Liquidity, an embodied, meditative practice that she designed to explore ideas of free time in an increasingly automated age. Baron-Bonarjee monitored the activity of her brain throughout the lecture using a MUSE headband which measured her brain waves.

Memory and Time formed the focus of the final panel, offering an eclectic range of thoughts on automation and redundancy, logistics and inscribed narrative time. Kieran Brayford discussed the possible ramifications of mass technological unemployment and forced leisure time, coming to similar conclusions as Phelan with regards to the limitations of automated agents as unable to explain significance. Eva-Maria Nyckel’s followed Brayford’s more general overview with a specific example of automated industry in the form of Amazon’s anticipatory shipping method. Nyckel used a patent for the shipping method as the basis to unpack the potentially huge impact it could have on the temporality of logistical processes. In a change of topic, Daniel Barrow of Birkbeck University turned to contemporary experimental fiction and the technological, inhuman agency of Big Data, which finds its form in a static and autonomous narrative time.

To close the conference a number of notable Sussex based academics and researchers came together for a round table discussion. Taking part were Caroline Bassett, Peter Boxall, David M. Berry, Beatrice Fazi, Simon McGregor and Michael Jonik, all of whom were asked to choose one key word that would explain their research. Boxall chose the word ‘artificiality’ as a recourse to explore its supposed opposite- the human. He offered the idea of the Augustinian human as somewhere between beast and angel, a figure made legible according to taxonomies that we map onto it. McGregor’s word was ‘alien’. As a cognitive scientist McGregor explained that the world is full of minds that cannot be reduced to their materiality and are eternally separated by an unbroachable void. Any attempts to understand these minds would aid efforts to predict their behaviour but would also bring us further away from other humans. Other keywords included intelligence, contingency, mastery, and critical reason, with final thoughts settling on the infinitude of computation, the passive intellect of algorithmic infrastructure, and the potential for the world to continue in the absence of humans.

Over its two days, Intelligent Futures gathered a range of richly provocative critical interventions, and created spaces for stimulating discussion of Artificial Intelligence. It demonstrated the importance of further critical, interdisciplinary study of Artificial Intelligence, as it continues to inform, and to transform, the societies we live in.

Maisie Ridgway is a CHASE funded PhD student at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include ideas of pre-digital poetics from Joyce to present, the viral vitality of language and the points at which science and literature intersect, mutually informing each other.