Imagination and Data Science

Today in 1833, Ada Byron (later Countess Lovelace) met Charles Babbage when visiting his house to see a portion the Difference Engine, or what her mother, Lady Byron, called his “thinking machine.” James Gleick writes in The Information: “Babbage saw a sparkling, self-possessed young woman with porcelain features and a notorious name, who managed to reveal that she knew more mathematics than most men graduating from university. She saw an imposing forty-one-year-old, authoritative eyebrows anchoring his strong-boned face, who possessed wit and charm and did not wear these qualities lightly. He seemed a kind of visionary–just what she was seeking. She admired the machine, too.”

With the Analytical Engine, Babbage imagined the modern computer. Gleick quotes Ada on imagination, from an essay she wrote in 1841: “It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk the threshold of the unknown worlds… may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.”

In this she anticipated Albert Einstein’s much-quoted observation: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Note to Data Scientists (or more specifically, those making exaggerated claims about IBM’s Watson or the promise of “data-driven” science): Without our imagination, machines can’t learn.