Women have contributed massively to the development of computer programming from its very creation through to current times where they’re pioneering new areas in technology. Rudimentary computer programming was developed before computers as we know them were even conceived of, all the way back to the early 19th century with Ada Lovelace.
Now, “Ada Lovelace” wasn’t actually her name; her full, married name was Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Personally, I think Ada Lovelace has a much better ring to it. It’s unique, like her education and upbringing were. The child of eccentric poet Lord Byron, Ada had an education with a heavy focus on science and math, since her mother was worried she would turn out like her daydreaming and wordy father. This helped encourage her special interest in machines, particularly flying machines. Her interests branched out to computers (or the rudimentary version of computers that existed in 1833) when she met Charles Babbage.
The two instantly clicked due to their distinctive personalities, and Ada helped Babbage develop the Analytical Engine from his Difference Engine. Her understanding of the machine truly emerged when she translated an article by Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea that was written in French. Babbage asked her to expand on it, and she transformed an 8,000-word article into a 20,000-word masterpiece. This piece contains the earliest “computer programs” and analyzed the different uses for the Analytical Engine like using symbols to represent things other than the actual symbols as well as creating music. The Analytical Engine was never physically built, but it was the first general-purpose computer.
The next major step in computer programming was the development of the first coding language in English. And, surprise, surprise, it was developed by a woman! Grace Hopper had an incredibly successful and amazing career in computer programming and the US Navy, but let’s zero in on her contributions to coding. Before her first language, Flow-Matic, coding was a complicated collection of symbols that primarily engineers and mathematicians understood.
In an interview in 1980, Grace talked about why she created a coding language based on English: “I kept calling for more user-friendly languages. I’ve always tried to do that, that’s why I want these other languages that are aimed at people. Most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people.” Flow-Matic was then adapted into COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), which was the first standardized, general, business computer language. That’s a lot of words to say that COBOL is more similar to coding languages that we use today like Python and SQL.
This coding set the foundation for modern programming languages and AI/ML development, and currently, there are women flourishing in technology and AI. Let’s take a look at some of these women and their groundbreaking accomplishments!
Rana el Kaliouby is in the world of emotionally intelligent AI, and that focuses on reading facial expressions, skin temperature, and heart rate to determine a person’s emotion or reaction to something. If you’re wondering how this kind of analysis can be useful, you’re not alone. el Kaliouby uses emotionally intelligent AI in her company Affectiva. I was interested to discover that this technology is used in vehicles to make roads safer, in marketing to measure genuine responses to ads, and even in labs to merge with biometric sensors. Sounding sci-fi yet? Well, strap in for even more amazing technology.
Human-centered AI seems a bit “Star Trek”, but it’s certainly a reality. Fei-Fei Li’s specific flavor of AI at Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute focuses on learning from human input and collaboration in order to augment human capabilities. Simply put, this type of AI learns by working side-by-side with people and understands how to support them in any professional setting from healthcare to design and even to writing and art. Working in AI isn’t all that Li should be praised for. She’s also involved in the non-profit AI4ALL, an organization that promotes the need for diversity in technology. Li’s AI can even be taken one step further to become a personal robot.
Cynthia Breazeal develops social and personal robots, and she helped create jibo. Jibo was originally a social robot for the home and is now branching out into the professional sectors of healthcare and education. Breazeal also founded and heads the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab. The goal of this group is to create robots that will learn from interacting with humans, engage as a peer to people, and help people connect with each other more deeply. Who knew that a robot could help us be more social?
I think this small sampling of successful women is sufficient enough to back up my statement of ”Go, women!” Women are a powerhouse in AI and technology, and there are even more than I mentioned here. Their achievements (and their importance) cannot be underpromoted. Grace Hopper had the right idea by developing her English-based coding language so technology could be more accessible to people without advanced degrees in engineering and math. Thanks to these women and what they have done in the fields of technology and AI/ML, anyone can automate testing, even men.