Lady Lovelace’s Objection

The criticism that a machine cannot have much diversity of behavior is just a way of saying that it cannot have much storage capacity. Until fairly recently a storage capacity of even a thousand digits was very rare.

The criticisms that we are considering here are often disguised forms of the argument from consciousness. Usually if one maintains that a machine can do one of these things, and describes the kind of method that the ma- chine could use, one will not make much of an impression. It is thought that the method (whatever it may be, for it must be mechanical) is really rather base. Compare the parenthesis in Jefferson’s statement quoted above.

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Lady Lovelace’s Objection
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Our most detailed information of Babbage’s Analytical Engine [a digital computer planned in the 1830s] comes from a memoir by Lady Lovelace. In it she states, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform” (her italics). This statement is quoted by Hartree who adds: “This does not imply that it may not be possible to construct electronic equipment which will ‘think for itself,’ or in which, in biological terms, one could set up a conditioned reflex, which would serve as a basis for ‘learning.’ Whether this is possible in principle or not is a stimulating and exciting question, sug- gested by some of these recent developments. But it did not seem that the machines constructed or projected at the time had this property.”

I am in thorough agreement with Hartree over this. It will be noticed that he does not assert that the machines in question had not got the property, but rather that the evidence available to Lady Lovelace did not encourage her to believe that they had it. It is quite possible that the machines in ques- tion had in a sense got this property. For suppose that some discrete state machine has the property. The Analytical Engine was a universal digital computer, so that, if its storage capacity and speed were adequate, it could by suitable programming be made to mimic the machine in question. Proba- bly this argument did not occur to the Countess or to Babbage. In any case there was no obligation on them to claim all that could be claimed. . . .

A variant of Lady Lovelace’s objection states that a machine can “never do anything really new.” This may be parried for a moment with the saw, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Who can be certain that “original work” that he has done was not simply the growth of the seed planted in him by teach- ing, or the effect of following well-known general principles. A better variant of the objection says that a machine can never “take us by surprise.” This statement is a more direct challenge and can be met directly. Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. This is largely because I do not do suffi- cient calculation to decide what to expect them to do, or rather because, al- though I do a calculation, I do it in a hurried, slipshod fashion, taking risks. Perhaps I say to myself, “I suppose the voltage here ought to be the same as there: anyway let’s assume it is.” Naturally I am often wrong, and the result is a surprise for me, for by the time the experiment is done these assumptions have been forgotten. These admissions lay me open to lectures on the subject of my vicious ways, but do not throw any doubt on my credibility when I tes- tify to the surprises I experience.

I do not expect this reply to silence my critic. He will probably say that such surprises are due to some creative mental act on my part, and reflect no credit on the machine. This leads us back to the argument from consciousness, and far from the idea of surprise. It is a line of argument we must consider closed, but it is perhaps worth remarking that the appreciation of something as sur- prising requires as much of a “creative mental act” whether the surprising event originates from a man, a book, a machine or anything else.

The view that machines cannot give rise to surprises is due, I believe, to a fallacy to which philosophers and mathematicians are particularly subject. This is the assumption that as soon as a fact is presented to a mind all conse- quences of that fact spring into the mind simultaneously with it. It is a very useful assumption under many circumstances, but one too easily forgets that it is false. A natural consequence of doing so is that one then assumes that there is no virtue in the mere working out of consequences from data and general principles.