Ada Lovelace and Artificial Intelligence

When: 1815 – 1852

What: Biography

Why: Artificial Intelligence visionnary and pionneer.

Lord Byron left us many influential treasures, but what if the greatest of all was his daughter, Augusta Ada Byron? She became one of the great mathematical minds of her time and is recognized by many as the first ever computer programmer, centuries before computers became practical programming devices. More importantly still, she also questioned the value of such an invention and its role in society and the arts, as has been called the prophet of the computer age as a tribute to this visionary position.

I would venture that she was the mother of Artificial Intelligence.

Ada Byron at 7, painting by Alfred d’Orsay

Ada Lovelace’s education

Ada (her father used her second name) was born on December 10, 1815, in London. She was Lord Byron’s only legitimate child. Less than two months later, her parents separated. Soon after, her father left her and her mother Anabelle Milbanke, leaving England never to return. He would die at the young age of 36 during the war for the independence of Greece. She never knew him, and was raised primarily by her mother, a devout mathematician who strongly encouraged her interest in science.

Lovelace’s early life was marked by poor health, measles putting her to bed for over a year, and she spent much of her childhood privately tutored, as well as self-taught, in mathematics, logic, and philosophy. But Augustus De Morgan, the first professor of mathematics at the University of London, helped her in her advanced studies. Those subjects were very unusual for women at that time, but her insistent mother felt they would protect her from developing her father’s unstable temperament (she has less kind words for it). A regimen to which she added long sessions of solitary meditation.

At the age of 13, Ada was apparently designing steam boats and flying machines.

Through her scientific upbringing and the social relationships of her mother, Ada got to meet many influential figures. At 17, when able to walk again after healing from measles, she was introduced by her illustrious tutors to Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, inventor, and engineer, who had been working on mechanical calculating devices and since dubbed the “father of the computer”. The two quickly formed a bond that turned into a lasting friendship.

Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (c) Carsten Ullrich
Punch cards for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (c) Science Museum

Ada’s visionary breakthrough

Augusta Ada Byron married William King, 8th Baron King, in 1835, at the age of 19. When he was made an earl in 1838, she took the title of Countess of Lovelace. The couple had three children, the first named Byron, which put Ada’s scientific studies on hold for a few years.

But her passion for Babbage’s creation never subsided, as her 1843 work would confirm. Nor did her fascination for her father’s poetry, as even later events would prove.

Babbage had designed two versions of his machine โ€“ the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. The first, theoretically capable of calculating tables used in navigation, engineering and banking, was of great interest to the Royal Society, who funded Babbage for its development. It relied on additions and subtractions (differences) to perform its calculations, and on a human being for its input and output.

When it was unveiled to a party of select guests, including Ada, in 1833, De Morganโ€™s wife also attended and remembered, โ€œWhen most of the guests looked on with the expression that savages show on seeing a looking glass, Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working and saw the great beauty of the invention”.

But it was the second machine that most caught Ada Lovelace’s attention. When Babbage’s Difference Engine project fell through (details in another post) he went back to the drawing board and came back with a more powerful design called the Analytical Engine, in 1834. This not only made possible more complex calculations, but also could be programmed to execute multiple operations in a sequence. At least, in theory, because the machine was never built.

 Diagram of an algorithm for the Analytical Engine for the computation of Bernoulli numbers, from Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage by Luigi Menabrea with notes by Ada Lovelace
Algorithm for the Analytical Engine for the computation of Bernoulli numbers. (c) Ada Lovelace and Luigi Menabrea.

Throughout married life and motherhood, Ada Lovelace organized her days to ensure two hours of solitude to work on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She one day decided to visit the cotton mills of the industrial North to learn how they automated the weaving of advanced patterns.

There, she recognized the potential of the punchcard approach developed by Jacquard for its automated looms, and realized “the analytical engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

Luigi Menabrea, an Italian military engineer was also seduced by the Analytical engine’s possibility and wrote a detailed article in French about it. Ada translated it to English in 1843, adding thrice its original volume in personal notes, including a series of instructions (pictured above) creating an algorithm to calculate Bernoulli numbers that were used in Astronomy, number theory and other branches of maths, as well as music (by none other than J.S. Bach, for instance).

Even more interesting were her explanation of how codes could be used as stand-in for letters and symbols in such algorithms, and her introduction of software loops and other novel concepts, paving the way for computational intelligence. Her interest in other topics was probably instrumental for this intention.

Where everyone, Babbage included, saw in those machines the potential for fast and accurate calculations, Ada saw the potential for machines to crunch on object representations, texts, music … It is believed she was the very first human being with that insight!


If Babbage was the father of the computer, we should think of Lovelace as the mother of Artificial Intelligence.


Ada Lovelace’s personal life is well documented, and tumultuous in her later years. The return of illness, personality-affecting prescription drugs, gambling (possibly fueled by algorithms), possible affairs … None of this matters here. This is not a traditional biography, but one that focuses on her pioneering role in the development of Artificial Intelligence and visionary insights into the role of such technologies in society.

Cancer cut her brilliant scientific career short in 1852, and she died aged 36, just like the father she never knew, long before her. Her final wish was to be buried alongside him, which provides another strong hint that she loved poetry as much as the sciences and favoured cross-cultural thinking.

Ironically, her tremendous work was lost to time after she passed away, as was Babbage’s. It was later rediscovered by like-minded genius Alan Turing, who was influenced by it. So, it’s possible Ada Lovelace’s thoughts, 2 centuries ago, contributed to the winning of WWII by the Allied Forces and the triumph against fascism.

Virtual portrait of Ada Lovelace by generative AI Midjourney using the prompt “portrait of Ada lovelace, working in a futuristic datacenter, realistic, Editorial Photography style”, by giuliamuccia.

Ada’s legacy

Prodigee child of a mad genius poet. Countess of Lovelace. A woman scientist in a man’s world. A pioneering computer programmer and Artificial Intelligence visionary, centuries before either term was even coined. A free-spirited, cross-cultural thinker. That’s enough to make me hope for a biographic movie such as the one devoted to Alan Turing, The Imitation Game ๐Ÿ™‚

All this may contain some fiction. Biographers are still debating the relative contributions of Babbage and Lovelace. In fact, it seems that Babbage wrote 2 dozen unpublished programs for his machine between 1837 and 1840, before Ada published hers. Whatever the case, her legacy is enough to inspire generations of new Artificial Intelligence thinkers and users.

She is remembered today in multiple ways:

  • In 1979, the ADA language, developed for the US Department of Defense, jointly defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), was named after her. Today, it is ancient, but still in use in industries where high security is critical, such as space exploration. A more recent ADA language also seems to bear her name, though I know little about it.
  • In 2009, Suw Charman-Anderson, former Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, founded the Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), every year, on the second Tuesday of October.
  • In 2015, Ethereum co-founder Charles Hoskinson created the Cardano blockchain and naimed the ADA cryptocurrency of that blockchain after her. Cardano was the first to move away from Bitcoin’s proof-of-work block validation, and to a much more energy-efficient proof-of-stake method, based on peer-reviewed research. The blockchain launched in 2017 and is still one of the very few contenders to the future crown of crypto. That this innovative breakaway from Bitcoin dogma was named after Ada Lovelace feels particularly fitting. If you ever end up paying your next car in ADA coins, have a warm fuzzy thought for the bedridden genius who fostered poetic science over two centuries ago ๐Ÿ™‚
The telescope with which asteroid 232923 Adalovelace was discovered, Kleลฅ, Czechia. (c)

Many other tributes to the inspirational figure Ada Lovelace include the Ada Lovelace Centre, a centre for women in technology at Oxford University, the Ada Lovelace Award, an award for women in technology, the British Computing Society Lovelace Medal, a medal awarded by the British Computer Society for contributions to computer science, Project Lovelace, scholarships, institutes, public gardens … and more. But my personal favourite, for such an intellectual shooting star is Asteroid 232923 Adalovelace (2005 AA29). How perfect ๐Ÿ™‚

My personal take

Artificial Intelligence will probably create a divide between those who understand it, and those who don’t. All disruptive technologies do. But, while it’s important that we cultivate a neo-Luddite mindset of open-minded cautiousness, we should recognize that the Artificial Intelligence tools released to the public also act as levelers.

It’s never been easier to code. It’s never been easier to produce spectacular imagery. While photographers view that as a threat, photography did the same thing to painting, and yielded generations of fantastic artists who understood the medium in terms of what could allow, rather than as a cheat sheet for people who could not draw.

Artificial Intelligence is waiting for those artists (developers, architects, engineers, bio-engineers, musicians …) to raise their hands. And those who rise to the top will probably bring with them a cross-cultural mindset such as that displayed by Ada Lovelace, possibly the first person in Humanity’s history to recognize the creative possibilities of poetic science, and of AI as a collaborative tool!

Her focus on Bernoulli numbers is telling. Rather than tables used for artillery, banking, navigation or architecture, she chose a set of numbers used to explain the world around us. Maybe it takes a woman’s mind to see value beyond guns and money ๐Ÿ˜‰ But the important take-away is the powerful lever that is cross-culture. She wrote fascinating and prescient texts about imagination (highly recommended article). The Artificial Intelligence she paved the way for will reward cross-cultural imagination and deep thought far more than technical skill. That’s got to be a positive sign for the future.

There is no cultural, class, age, gender, ethnic, geographic barrier to entry here. As Nike formulated it in mankind’s most uplifting slogan ever: Just Do It! ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

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