Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Pattie Maes!

Today has been declared Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in technology named after the first computer programmer. Born Augusta Ada Byron—yes, that Byron—she was schooled in mathematics at her mother’s insistence and, as Wikipedia says, her “interest in mathematics dominated her life even after her marriage.” (OMG NO WAY. ::facepalm::)

In 1834, Lovelace heard Charles Babbage lecture on a big, clunky machine he’d designed that would work with the decimal system and read punch cards: the first computer. Even though it was never built, the theory was sound and Lovelace was intrigued. When another mathematician published a description of the analytical machine in French, she translated the work into English with annotations longer than the actual text. In annotation G, Lovelace included an algorithm and a plan for using the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers—in other words, the first computer program.

The idea of Ada Lovelace Day was to get 1000 people to pledge to blog about women in technology, and according to the homepage, the goal has been met and nearly doubled. I like the technology caveat; there are the “women in science” standards like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, but who’s involved in what’s new and cool, like Lovelace was?

Well, the coolest thing I’ve seen lately was the Sixth Sense demo at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design); it’s a wearable computer that can read the positions of your hands, allowing you to interact with projected maps, websites, and a calculator, and it feeds you information about objects and people in the world around you. While the project’s principal mover and shaker—and star of the video—was PhD student Pranav Mistry, I remembered a woman professor being involved. Off to Google.

Pattie Maes, as it turns out, heads the (otherwise all-male) Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT, whose goal is to “radically rethink the human-machine interactive experience.” Maes herself is responsible for Barnes and Noble’s website being able to provide customized recommendations; on a more geektastic note, at the Fluid Interfaces Group they design interfaces that work with natural human gestures and habits, like the Sixth Sense device and sticky notes that communicate with your phone. To me, most of their projects just fall under “seriously cool”: portraits that react to each other (aka wizard portraits); temperature-controlled ink that changes and tells a story as the paper heats up; glasses that allow the same signboard to say different things; and room elements that adjust themselves according to temperature, ventilation and amount of daylight. Why wasn’t any of this stuff in the BSG finale, hmm? Perhaps because it’s too awesome?

This interview is kind of old, but in it, Maes shares her thoughts on artificial intelligence vs. intelligence augmentation and why she calls her algorithms “agents”:

Usually we think of software as passive. You have to turn on and instruct it to do something and then it will do it. The agents approach to software is different in the sense that the agents are continuously running. You don’t want to have to start up that agent in your fridge that’s watching the milk, it should continuously be taking care of that particular task for you, so it’s long-lived software that is continuously running. That is very different from the kind of software that we’ve been using in the past, and that’s another reason why a different term is appropriate – you have a different kind of relationship with this software.

170 years ago, Ada Lovelace would have set the analytical machine to calculating a series of numbers that could also be calculated by hand. Today, Pattie Maes has a little more to work with—like, uh, binary!—but they were essentially looking at how to use the newest tools make life a little more streamlined, and that’s as mindblowing to me as kinetic fur.

Check out some of these other Ada Lovelace Day Posts: interactive map, Daniel Jones on artist Jane Prophet, Jade Lennox on working in tech, Jane on technology and social behavior expert Justine Cassell, the #ald09 Twitter stream.


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