babbage's intelligence by simon schaffer

Calculating Engines and Intelligence

"The engine, from its capability of performing by itself all those purely material operations, spares intellectual labour, which may be more profitably employed. Thus the engine may be considered as a real manufactory of figures"

L.F.Menabrea, 1842, translated by Ada Lovelace, 1843. [8]

Babbage's designs for intelligent machines dominated his career from the moment he reached Regency London as an independently wealthy and ambitious analyst. His Difference Engine was based on the principle that the nth differences of successive values of n-power polynomials were constants and thus tables of these values could be computed by the addition and subtraction of a set of predetermined constants. The device was launched in London in summer 1822, received the promise of Treasury backing in spring 1823, and Babbage began active collaboration on the project with the master engineer Joseph Clement the following summer. To pursue the enterprise Clement's workshop at Newington Butts took on as many as eight men, including one specialist draughtsman. Furious fights between Clement and Babbage on the ownership of tools, designs and hardware began in spring 1829. Despite interventions by the Prime Minister Wellington, the mediation of other engineers such as Henry Maudslay, and the nationalisation of the engine in early 1830, the project collapsed forever amidst recriminations in summer 1834. [9] But in the mid-1830s Babbage began negotiating a new contract with Clement's former draughtsman, C.G.Jarvis, with whom he developed plans for what they baptised the Analytical Engine. "The railroad mania withdrew from other pursuits the most intellectual and skilful draftsmen", Babbage recalled. In 1842-3 he arranged for a major publicity campaign, initially through Italian contacts such as the Piedmontese military engineer and future premier L.F.Menabrea and then through his close ally the aristocratic philomath Ada Lovelace. [10] This new machine was an unprecedented technical system. It was designed to carry in its memory one thousand numbers each of fifty digits. The store consisted of sets of parallel figure wheels, structured like those in the store of the Difference Engine; the input-output device was based on sets of number cards and variable cards, the latter of which would control which gear-axis would be used; and the control was transmitted though what Babbage baptized operation cards. Sequences of cards carried instructions to the engine, which were decoded in the store using the machine's library of logarithmic and other functions, and then distributed to the operating sections of the mill. Such distribution could itself be modified by variables set by the existing state of operations in the machine. These crucial aspects of the Engine, its capacity for memory and for anticipation, were to be profound resources for Babbage's metaphysics and his political economy. "Nothing but teaching the Engine to foresee and then to act upon that foresight could ever lead me to the object I desired". [11]

These resources were publicised throughout the 1840s, notably during Babbage's important visit to the meeting of Italian scienzati at Turin in 1840, where he gave a public address on the new engine in the milieu of civil reform and nationalist sentiment. Babbage was invited to the meeting by Giovanni Plana, a Laplacian graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique and Piedmontese government astronomer. Plana evoked the Engine with a brilliant political analogy: "hitherto the legislative department of our analysis has been all powerful - the executive all feeble. Your engine seems to give us the same control over the executive which we have hitherto only possessed over the legislative department". The debates at Turin with Plana and the leading physicist Mossotti centred on the "intelligence" of this machine. They agreed that such intelligence would be measured by the capacity for anticipation. When Mossotti said he could not imagine how the engine could "perform the act of judgment", Babbage described his recursion method for extracting roots from an equation of any degree: "his real difficulty consisted in teaching the engine to know when to change from one set of cards to another.....at intervals not known to the person who gave the orders". The discussions with the Italian rationalists questioned the account of knowledge which such complex processes of training and judgement might involve. When Menabrea completed his essay on the machine, he remarked that "the machine is not a thinking being, but simply an automaton which acts according to the laws imposed upon it". [12]

In the context of British and Piedmontese debates about industrialisation and social change, this was a powerful if questionable image. Menabrea and Plana worked hard to link their algebraic analyses of moving forces with urgent practical demands of military and civil engineering and thus to reform the labour force of the new state. Babbage and Lovelace, who translated and annotated Menabrea's memoir in 1843, used highly anthropomorphic language to describe the faculty of anticipation, feeling and choice which they reckoned the engine would display. In 1838 Babbage conceded that "in substituting mechanism for the performance of operations hitherto executed by intellectual labour....the analogy between these acts and the operations of mind almost forced upon me the figurative employment of the same terms. They were found at once convenient and expressive, and I prefer to continue their use". Hence he was committed to phrases such as "the engine knows", to describe its predetermined move from one calculation to the next. The machine might be an automaton, but it carried intelligence. Lovelace put the issue like this: "although it is not itself the being that reflects, it may yet be considered as the being which executes the conceptions of intelligence. The cards receive the impress of these conceptions, and transmit to the various trains of mechanism composing the engine the orders necessary for their action". This execution of intelligence was directly linked to the capacities of reliable, subordinate, workmen: "it will by means of some simple notations be easy to consign the execution of them to a workman. Thus the whole intellectual labour will be limited to the preparation of the formulae, which must be adapted for calculation by the engine". The subordination of machinofacture to intelligence was crucial. The Analytical Engine raised the issue of the class division of intelligence. Menabrea ended his memoir with a reflection on the "economy of intelligence". "The engine may be considered as a real manufactory of numbers". In her remarkable annotations to this text, Lovelace extended and qualified these remarks about the manufacture process. She urged that the issue of whether the "executive faculties of this engine...are really even able to follow analysis in its whole extent" could only be answered by watching the engine work. She explicitly analogized between the working of the machine and the mind, notably in respect of the separation between operation cards, variable cards and number cards. "It were much to be desired", she noted, "that when mathematical processes pass through the human brain instead of through the medium of inanimate mechanisms, it were equally a necessity of things that the reasonings connected with operations should hold the same just place as a clear and well-defined branch of the subject of analysis...which they must do in studying the engine". The science of operations was proposed as a new discipline of utter generality both within the surveillance of mental labour and in the manufacture of exact values. The Analytical Engine was simply the "material and mechanical representative of analysis", and through its working "not only the mental and material but the theoretical and the practical in the mathematical world are brought into more intimate and effective connexion with each other". [13]

Mental labour became a measurable form of work and embodied in machine intelligence. The exactly contemporary discourse of political economy, especially the philosophy of manufactures, provided Babbage both with an account of what he called the "domestic economy of the factory", as he baptized it, and also with an analysis of the skilled mental labour embodied in machinery. Since the analytical engines were always compared with the Jacquard card looms of the weaving trade, this analogy was close and just. "The Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves", wrote Lovelace. Readers were instructed to visit the popular London shows of practical science at the Adelaide Gallery and the Polytechnic Institution to learn about this loom for themselves, while Babbage presented the Piedmontese court with a woven silk portrait of Jacquard purchased in the Lyons silk factories - it formed part of his evangelical promotion of machinofacture in Victor Emmanuel's capital. [14] Furthermore, since Babbage's collaborators on the calculating engines were themselves veterans of the machine tool industry inaugurated by Maudslay and Clement, this experience was of direct relevance to the construction of the engines. The precision, discipline and domestic order of the factory was this an intimate concern of Babbage's project.

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