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Calculating Consciousness: Ada Lovelace and the Discourse on Thinking Machines

In the unfolding narrative of humanities dance with mathematics and reality, the figure of

Ada Lovelace stands as an emblematic bridge connecting the poetic romanticism of the early

19th century with the nascent field of computational science. Born Ada Byron on December 10,

1815, in London England as the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Lady Anne Isabella


Lovelace was steered towards the logical rigors of mathematics by her mother, who perhaps saw in the structured clarity of numbers a counterbalance to the tempestuous emotional legacy of her father.

This educational direction was not merely an antidote to romanticism but a

dance between two contrasting worldviews, a synthesis embodied in Lovelace's work. Her exposure to mathematics was not confined to the abstractions of numbers alone; it was deeply rooted in the philosophy of mathematics and its ability, or lack there off, to frame how we think.

Later on she married William king, and became Ada king.

The significance of Lovelace's marriage to King, who would become the Earl of Lovelace, was not merely social but intellectual, placing her into the circles of high society where ideas were as currency. It was atransformative era where the aristocracy was not just a passive patron of the arts and sciences but often directly engaged in the intellectual discourses of the time.

Lovelace's ascension through aristocracy thus situated her at the crossroads of social influence and intellectual ferment,allowing her to serve as a conduit for the proliferation of new ideas in computation andmathematics. Lovelace also circumnavigated the societal roles typically prescribed for women of her status.

Lovelace's educational journey was marked by mentorships with some of the era’s

foremost thinkers, notably the mathematician Augustus De Morgan, who himself was deeply

influenced by the Cartesian tradition of analytical and methodical skepticism.

De Morgan introduced her to Charles Babbage, the originator of the Analytical Engine.

The correspondence between Lovelace and De Morgan reveals they saw a mind attuned not only to the intricacies of mathematical problems but also to the philosophical underpinnings of mathematical thought.

De Morgan wrote in reference to Ada:

“I feel bound to tell you that the power of thinking on these matters which Lady L[ovelace] has always shewn from the beginning of my correspondence with her, has been something so utterly out of the common way for any beginner, man or woman, that this power must be duly considered by her friends, with reference to the question whether they should urge or check her obvious determination to try not only to reach but to get beyond, the present bounds of knowledge.”

Even the forefather of electromagnetism, Michle Faraday, saw Ada as not only a powerful woman of their time, but that of a thinker in general, regardless of gender. In a letter from Faraday to Babbage, he refers to Lovelace as an

“enchantress who has thrown her magic spell around the most abstract of sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it”.

The Cartesian tradition, most prominently espoused by René Descartes, posits that the essence of mathematical knowledge could be leveraged to unravel the mysteries of all natural phenomena2. This tradition became a cornerstone of rational inquiry, advocating for the use of clear and distinct ideas to pierce through the ambiguity of perception and the uncertainty of empirical knowledge.

Lovelace, in her extrapolations on the potential of Babbages’s Analytical Engine, echoes this Cartesian conviction, envisioning a future where the symbolic language of mathematics becomes a tool for expressing and manipulating ideas with precision and clarity.


Ada Lovelace, traditionally celebrated as a pioneering mathematician in the field of computing, should also be recognized as a foundational philosopher of mathematics, whose conceptualizations of the Analytical Engine reveal a profound understanding of mathematics as a symbolic language capable of modeling reality.

Her insights, resonating with the Cartesian quest for a foundation of knowledge, prefigure the philosophical debates surrounding artificial intelligence.

Turing's critique of Lovelace's skepticism about machine ability to originate and his formulation of the 'Imitation Game' drawing from the tests that Rene Descartes espoused in order to separate man from machine not only highlight the continued relevance of her work but also demonstrate an implicit, century-spanning dialogue between their ideas, underscoring a shared pursuit of understanding the cognitive potential and limitations of machines.

A discourse that we find reemerging today, not only among the great thinkers of society, but our mainstream audience as a whole, a question that takes us far deeper into the concepts of consciousness, a question that asks: can machines think?

Defense of Lovelace as Philosopher

Before diving into the discourse of Ada’s philosophy, I find it important to justify why she was in fact a philosopher to begin with. In order to properly understand and explore her writings, we must first explore the pages upon pages of mathematical computations.

Within these writings we see a mix of well founded mathematics paired with the exploration of new formulas and more importantly new ideas. She seems to place, as her math inspires, sections of profound writing on the nature of her mathematics or the implications of it within these many pages. While reading through an explanation and mathematical layout of the Bernoulli numbers, you will find a paragraph explaining the logic and thought behind what operations are within the brain, and the semantics of what creation and thought is.

Much of her notes and letters are filled with philosophical remarks and commentary hidden within the web of algorithms and formulas. Within this web you find her anticipation of future debates on machine cognition, her insight into the symbolic language of mathematics, and her implicit dialogue with the Cartesian tradition.

Pair this with her mentorship under De Morgan and posthumous engagement with Turing, positioning her as a philosopher in her own right—a thinker whose mathematical contributions cannot be divorced from their philosophical implications, becomes apparent.

Thus, Ada Lovelace emerges not only as a pioneer of computational thought but as a thinker whose work is imbued with philosophical significance, foreshadowing and informing the very debates that would come to define the philosophical scrutiny of artificial intelligence we see today.

Lovelace's Work

The most intensive and renowned contribution of Ada Lovelace is embodied in her work related to Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. Initially, the concept of the Analytical Engine was introduced and elaborated by Luigi Federico Menabrea, an Italian mathematician and engineer, who wrote out Babbage's ideas in a published French article.

Lovelace not only translated Menabrea's article into English but significantly extended it with her profound insights. Her efforts culminated in a remarkable achievement where she didn't merely translate the existing material; rather, she transcended it by contributing extensive notes. These notes, nearly three times the length of the original work, reflect her unparalleled ability to grasp and expand on the machine's mathematical and computational potential.

Ada Lovelace's work on the Analytical Engine represents a significant leap in the understanding of computational possibilities, far surpassing the narrow confines of numerical calculations. In her extensive notes, Lovelace delved deeply into the mathematical principles of the Analytical Engine, unveiling a revolutionary perspective on algorithms and their potential applications.

She envisioned the machine as a sophisticated tool for manipulating symbols in line with specific rules, effectively laying the groundwork for what we recognize today as computer programming. Lovelace's extraordinary foresight is illustrated in her assertion,

"Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent".

This statement not only highlights her anticipation of the machine's creative potential but also its capacity to transcend the traditional boundaries of numerical computation. She further clarified this revolutionary concept by stating,

"Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies, imagine that because the business of the engine is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact, it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, were provisions made accordingly".

Her insights not only formed the basis for many fundamental equations but also contributed to the foundational "code" that underpins modern computer programs. This combination of translation, commentary, and progressive analysis not only demonstrates Lovelace's mastery of mathematics but also her prescience in foreseeing the advent of the computer age.

Moreover, Lovelace's foresight in envisaging the machine's applications in creative and everyday contexts, as encapsulated in "Note A," underscores her profound understanding of computation as a philosophical endeavor.

This perspective resonates with Cartesian philosophy, where the crux of mathematical knowledge—and indeed all knowledge—rests in its clear and systematic representation through language. Lovelace’s work, therefore, was not just a contribution to the development of computational devices, but a foundational influence in shaping the very concepts and applications at the heart of computer science and technology. Now the actual application of this thought to the ability of the machine to “think” is found in "Note G. ''

Her statement,

"The [Analytical Engine] has no pretensions whatsoever to originate anything,"

serves not as a dismissal of the engine's creative potential but as a philosophical standpoint on the nature of machine cognition.

Lovelace envisaged the engine as an entity operating within the confines of pre-set instructions, an idea resonating with Descartes' belief in the uniqueness of rational, introspective human thought—a faculty beyond the realm of mechanical replication.

Rather than belittling the engine's significance, Lovelace highlights the pivotal role of mathematical language in forming our concepts of 'thinking' and 'consciousness'.

She recognized the engine as a conduit for human creativity and logical structure, stating,

“A new a vast and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind."

Philosophical Implications

This concept of machines “thinking” is actually found far before Lovelace came into the world. Descending into the historical roots nearly 200 years prior, Descartes' "Discourse on The Method” offers an early perspective on machine cognition through the lens of language as a marker of thought. Descartes posited that the appropriate use of language could be a definitive test for genuine thought in machines, asserting,

"And we ought not to confound speech with the natural movements which indicate the passions, and can be imitated by machines as well as manifested by animals; nor must it be thought with certain of the ancients, that the brutes speak, although we do not understand their language.”.

Lovelace's perspective on the capabilities of machines as mentioned earlier, seems to follow Descartes' viewpoint on the nature of mechanical beings.

In her examination of the Analytical Engine, Lovelace recognizes that while the machine possesses the ability to manipulate symbols and execute complex operations, it fundamentally lacks the capacity for understanding or originating these rules autonomously.

This aligns with Descartes' observation regarding machines, wherein he argues that the superiority of machines in certain tasks does not equate to them possessing reason or intellect.

Descartes' assertion, as illustrated through the analogy of a clock adeptly measuring time, highlights that the excellence of machines in specific functions is a result of their mechanical configuration, not an indication of cognitive capabilities:

"so that the circumstance that they do better than we does not prove that they are endowed with mind... it rather proves that they are destitute of reason, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs"

In this context, both Lovelace and Descartes converge on a critical distinction between the mechanical execution of tasks and the intellectual processes of reasoning and understanding. For Lovelace, the Analytical Engine's proficiency in following predefined procedures and executing calculations with precision is akin to the utilization of language without genuine comprehension.

They seem to make the distinction that while an impressive feat of engineering, it remains categorically different from the human experience of intellectual reasoning This philosophical discussion is further enriched, and contested, by Alan Turing. Within his book “Computing Machinery and Intelligence" where he directly addresses Lovlace in a section titled Objection of Lovelace.

Turing's perspective doesn't oppose Lovelace but rather accepts the context of her time; it extends her philosophical inquiry into the modern context of artificial intelligence.

In reference to the advancement and understanding of computers since Lovelace’s time, Turing remarks,

"It will be noticed that he does not assert that the machines in question had not got the property[thinking], but rather that the evidence available to Lady Lovelace did not encourage her to believe that they had it."

Turing's main argument hinges on the idea that the perception of originality in human thought could itself be an illusion. Referencing the quote “there is nothing new under the sun” He suggests that what we consider 'original work' might simply be an extension or transformation of ideas implanted in us through education and experience.

Turing implies that if human originality can be viewed as a reshaping of existing knowledge and principles, then the ability of machines to 'surprise' us or create something 'new' should not be summarily dismissed. We are taught language, math, concepts, ideologies, school and society in this way is the “program” and our brains are the “machines.”

Turing, thus, shifts the focus from the limitations of machines to the limitations of human understanding and observation in Lovelace's era. He posits that the advancements in technology reveal capacities in machines that were previously unimagined or unrecognized.

This argument opens up a profound philosophical question about the nature of intelligence, both human and artificial. If human thought is largely a recombination and refinement of pre-existing ideas, the distinction between human and machine intelligence becomes less clear.

Turing's insight challenges us to reconsider what constitutes 'thinking' and whether the capacity for original thought is a definitive characteristic of human intelligence, or if it can be an emergent property in sufficiently advanced machines.

Turing continues to challenge the notion of mechanical incapacity for originality by proposing the potential of machines to simulate any human behavior, including creative processes, in ways that are nearly indistinguishable from natural human actions, due to their capacity for unexpected outputs.

He posits that the surprise elicited by machine responses belies a common fallacy: "The view that machines cannot give rise to surprise 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 consequences of that fact spring into the mind simultaneously with it".9 Turing's assertion implies that the element of surprise can emerge even when all the facts are pre-programmed, as the unfolding of these facts might lead to unforeseen outcomes.

This prospect applies equally to machines, thereby diminishing the distinction between human and machine cognition. It suggests that the significance lies not in "how" the machine operates, but in the unforeseen actions it takes, actions that were not explicitly programmed or anticipated. Continuing the line of thought articulated by Turing, the 'black box' problem in contemporary machine learning and large language models (LLMs) serves as a compelling case in point.

This problem pertains to the often opaque internal workings of complex algorithms, where even the creators may not fully understand how specific outputs are generated. In machine learning, particularly in deep learning systems, the neural networks process vast amounts of data through layers of algorithms, making decisions and predictions that are not always transparent, even to the programmers.

The outcomes, while based on the data fed into the system, can be unexpected or surprising, and finding the actual “algorithms” or thought process on “why” that program came up with that output is almost impossible, mirroring Turing's notion of unforeseen consequences arising from known facts.

In certain instances, AI has demonstrated the ability to create novel artistic works or solve complex problems in ways that were not explicitly programmed and are not entirely understood by its developers.

Moreover, the advancement of LLMs, like OpenAI's GPT models, further exemplifies this concept. These models, trained on extensive textual datasets, often generate responses or content that can be startlingly creative or insightful.

While the underlying principles of these models are understood — they predict the likelihood of the next word or phrase based on the previous context — the specific pathways to their sometimes ingenious outputs remain largely mysterious.

This can be likened to the way in which human thought is conducted, is the process of deciding what is best to say next in reference to what is heard and told any different than a normal conversation among peers?

In this way, the 'black box' problem in modern AI is not just a technical challenge; it also resonates deeply with philosophical questions about the nature of creativity and intelligence, both human and artificial.

It underscores the notion that the capacity for generating 'new' ideas or solutions may not be solely a human domain and that machines, through complex and often opaque processes, can also arrive at novel and unexpected results.

The key distinction then comes not from what is known, but rather, what is not. 13 This leads us to an intriguing paradox: if the criticisms leveled against machines for their inability to 'think' can also be applied to humans, then the question isn't solely about whether machines can think, but whether humans can truly claim exclusivity over thought. Descartes' famous assertion, "I think, therefore I am," presupposes an inherent self-awareness in thinking.

However, when a machine states "I think," the authenticity of its claim to self-awareness and understanding becomes a subject of debate. The question of what gives us the authority to decide what is thinking, and what isn't, comes into view.

Turing’s perspective, juxtaposed with those of Lovelace and Descartes, opens up a broader inquiry into the nature of thought, consciousness, and the essence of what it means to 'think', whether it be in the realm of humans, machines or the universe as a whole.


The conclusion that emerges from this synthesis is not a definitive resolution but an ongoing dialogue—a dialogue that Lovelace herself might have recognized as the quintessence of philosophical inquiry.

Her reflections on the Analytical Engine, her foresight into its capacities and limitations, and her nuanced understanding of the nature of machine cognition have all contributed to a rich philosophical discourse that transcends her era.

Lovelace’s work compels us to consider the profound complexities of artificial intelligence, not merely as a technical field but as a philosophical frontier that challenges our most fundamental conceptions of mind, thought, and creativity.

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