Grace Hopper, Builder of Cyborgs

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Grace Hopper is perhaps the most well-known pioneering figure in computer science. She coded the first compiler and is known as the “grandmother of Cobol.”[i] Her vision and drive helped spur computer innovation farther than was thought possible, and led to technologies that even she could not foresee. Her ideal of making computer use easier and more intuitive to humans was carried farther than she could have imagined by technologies like those Andy Clark speaks of in Natural Born Cyborgs.

Grace Hopper graduated from Vassar with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1928, and went on to earn her master’s degree and Ph. D. in mathematics from Yale.[ii] Afterwards, she started a career as a professor at Vassar, where she was known for her unusual interdisciplinary technique in teaching mathematics courses.[iii] She also took advantage of her position as a professor to audit classes in a variety of subjects in the arts and sciences.[iv]

During World War II, Hopper’s desire to contribute to the war effort and her background in mathematics led her to be assigned to the Mark I, one of the first computers, as a naval officer. The Mark I was a huge, clunky, mechanical machine that took input via long strips of paper with holes punched in them. It broke easily and was took a great deal of time to program and debug, though it was still faster than humans with slide rules.

 

Grace Hopper knew that the stuff inside our “biological skin-bag”[v] was fallible. Despite the power of the Mark I, errors frequently occurred because of the humans involved in the project. Those who actually wrote the code, such as Hopper, were prone to mistakes, and actually punching the holes in long strips of paper was an arduous task assigned to workers who did not actually understand the machine but had to follow charts provided by Hopper and the other coders.[vi] Hopper understood the inherent problems with Mark I and quickly developed coping mechanisms to deal with them. She used pen and paper, an older form of cyborg technology, to take notes on the unnaturally complicated hole-punched code, so she could easily check what each line meant if a correction needed to be made later on in the process.

Since Hopper knew that putting less stress on the human brain would lead to fewer errors, she saved subroutines—commonly used equations and other pieces of code—on the long strips of paper used to program the machine. Later, computers stored subroutines instead of people, using magnetized metal drums, mercury, or strips of magnetic tape, but there was still no easy way to combine the subroutines. The code itself was lines eight digits long, a binary of spaces that were either punched or solid, and was extremely impractical and difficult to understand. Hopper wanted English-based code that any English speaker could understand. (She also experimented with code in other European languages, but her employers at the time considered that impractical.) She also wanted the subroutines, now that they were stored in the computer’s memory, to be assembled by the computer, rather than by the programmer, a concept she called “compiling.” Both English-based code and compilers are now widely accepted standards, and make programming more intuitive and easier for everyday people to use.

Andy Clark, in his work Natural Born Cyborgs, is very interested in the idea of the cyborg as an aspect of human’s use and adaptation of tools. Of particular interest in his work is the budding technology used by Stelarc, a performance artist who uses a robotic arm “indirectly controlled by neural signals from [his] brain.”[vii] Though this technology seems strange to us even in this technological age, it can be viewed as a part of a natural progression, from the aid of pen and paper and slide rule, to the clumsiness of the Mark I, to computers that take input in English words, to computers that are easy enough for a three-year-old to use, to devices that take only a thought. And Grace Hopper, thought she did not work alone, broke one of these first barriers to human’s use of the computer.

Grace Hopper not only passed down tangible ideas such as compilers, but more abstract ideas about the possible nature of human/computer interaction. She believed that computers should be easy and intuitive to use. She could not have imagined computers that could cause mechanical movement in the way that Clark describes. When people doubted that computers could understand words in English, why would they have thought that the machines could interpret signals directly from the brain? Computers were envisioned as something for businesses and government agencies to use, not something that anyone could turn on and use, not something that would be a household item, and certainly not something that could be incorporated into a human being’s body.

Grace Hopper took the first, unthinkable steps towards making computers something that a human could interact with without an intermediary. She took two ideas that people saw as impractical or impossible and made them possible and practical. She saw the need and capacity for human cyborgs as Andy Clark envisions, and helped make it possible.



[i] Beyer, 1

[ii] Williams, 115-116

[iii] Beyer, 27

[iv] Beyer, 27-28

[v] Clark, 5

[vi] Beyer, 56-57

[vii] Clark, 119

 

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