Reclaim your name

by Jo Brodie and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Canadian Passport
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

In June 2021 the Canadian government announced that Indigenous people would be allowed to use their ancestral family names on government-issued identity and travel documents. This meant that, for the first time, they could use the names that are part of their heritage and culture rather than the westernised names that are often used instead. Because of computers, it wasn’t quite as easy as that though …

Some Indigenous people take on a Western name to make things easier, to simplify things for official forms, to save having to spell the name, even to avoid teasing. If it is a real choice then perhaps that is fine, though surely we should be able to make it easy for people to use their actual names. For many it was certainly not a choice, their Indigenous names were taken from them. From the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children in Canada were sent to Western schools and made to take on Western names as part of an attempt to force them to “assimilate” into Western society. Some were even beaten if they did not use their new name. Because their family names had been “officially” changed, they and their descendants had to use these new names on official documents. Names matter. It is your identity, and in some cultures family names are also sacred. Being able to use them matters.

The change to allow ancestral names to be used was part of a reconciliation process to correct this injustice. After the announcement, Ta7talíya Nahanee, an indigenous woman from the Squamish community in Vancouver, was delighted to learn that she would be able to use her real name on her official documents, rather than ‘Michelle’ which she had previously used.

Unfortunately, she was frustrated to learn that travel documents could still only include the Latin alphabet (ABCDEFG etc) with French accents (À, Á, È, É etc). That excluded her name (pronounced Ta-taliya, the 7 is silent) as it contains a number and the letter í. Why? Because the computer said so!

Modern machine-readable passports have a specific area, called the Machine Readable Zone which can be read by a computer scanner at immigration. It has a very limited number of permitted characters. Names which don’t fit need to be “transliterated”, so Å would be written as AA, Ü as UE and the German letter ß (which looks like a B but sounds like a double S) is transliterated as SS. Names are completely rewritten to fit, so Müller becomes MUELLER, Gößmann becomes GOESSMANN, and Hämäläinen becomes HAEMAELAEINEN. If you’ve spent your life having your name adapted to fit someone else’s system this is another reminder of that.

While there are very sensible reasons for ensuring that a passport from one part of the world can be read by computers anywhere else, this choice of characters highlights that, in order to make things work, everyone else has been made to fall in line with the English-speaking population, another example of an unintentional bias. It isn’t, after all, remotely beyond our ability to design a system that meets the needs of everyone, it just needs the will. Designing computer systems isn’t just about machines. It’s about designing them for people.

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1. 

Al-Jazari: the father of robotics

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Al Jazari's hand washing automaton
Image from Wikipedia

Science fiction films are full of humanoid robots acting as servants, workers, friends or colleagues. The first were created during the Islamic Golden Age, a thousand years ago. 

Robots and automata have been the subject of science fiction for over a century, but their history in myth goes back millennia, but so does the actual building of lifelike animated machines. The Ancient Greeks and Egyptians built Automata, animal or human-like contraptions that seemed to come to life. The early automata were illusions that did not have a practical use, though, aside from entertainment or just to amaze people. 

It was the great inventor of mechanical gadgets Ismail Al-Jazari from the Islamic Golden Age of science, engineering and art in the 12th century, who first built robot-like machines with actual purposes. Powered by water, his automata acted as servants doing specific tasks. One machine was a humanoid automaton that acted as a servant during the ritual purification of hand washing before saying prayers. It poured water into a basin from a jug and then handed over a towel, mirror and comb. It used a toilet style flushing mechanism to deliver the water from a tank. Other inventions included a waitress automaton that served drinks and robotic musicians that played instruments from a boat. It may even have been programmable. 

We know about Al-Jazari’s machines because he not only created mechanical gadgets and automata, he also wrote a book about them: The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. It’s possible that it inspired Leonardo Da Vinci who, in addition to being a famous painter of the Italian Renaissance, was a prolific inventor of machines. 

Such “robots” were not everyday machines. The hand washing automata was made for the King. Al-Jazari’s book, however, didn’t just describe the machines, it explained how to build them: possibly the first text book to cover Automata. If you weren’t a King, then perhaps you could, at least, have a go at making your own servants. 

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1. 

A PC Success

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

An outline of a head showing the brain and spinal column on a digital background of binary and circuitry

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

We have moved on to smartphones, tablets and smartwatches, but for 30 years the desktop computer ruled, and originally not just any desktop computer, the IBM PC. A key person behind its success was African American computer scientist, Mark Dean.

IBM is synonymous with computers. It became the computing industry powerhouse as a result of building large, room-sized computers for businesses. The original model of how computers would be used followed IBM’s president, Thomas J Watson’s, supposed quote that “there is a world market for about five computers.” They produced gigantic computers that could be dialled into by those needed computing time. That prediction was very quickly shown to be wrong, though, as computer sales boomed.

Becoming more personal

Mark Dean was the first African American
to receive IBM’s highest honour.

By the end of the 1970s the computing world was starting to change. Small, but powerful, mini-computers had taken off and some companies were pushing the idea of computers for the desktop. IBM was at risk of being badly left behind… until they suddenly roared back into the lead with the IBM personal computer and almost overnight became the world leaders once more, revolutionising the way computers were seen, sold and used. Their predictions were still a little off with initial sales of the IBM PC 8 times more than they expected! Within a few years they were selling many hundreds of thousands a year and making billions of dollars. Soon every office desk had one and PC had become an everyday word used to mean computer.

Get on the bus

So who was behind this remarkable success? One of the design team who created the IBM PC was Mark Dean. As a consequence of his work on the PC, he became the first African American to be made an IBM fellow (IBM’s highest honour). One of his important contributions was in leading the development of the PC’s bus. Despite the name, a computer bus is more like a road than a vehicle, so its other name of data highway is perhaps better. It is the way the computer chip communicates with the outside world. A computer on its own is not really that useful to have on your desktop. It needs a screen, keyboard and so on. A computer bus is a bit like your nervous system used to send messages from your brain around your body. Just as your brain interacts with the world receiving messages from your senses, and allowing you to take action by sending messages to your muscles, all using your nervous system, a computer chip sends signals to its peripherals using the bus. Those peripherals include things like mouse, keyboard, printers, monitors, modems, external memory devices and more; the equivalents of its way of sensing the world and interacting with it. The bus is in essence just a set of connectors into the chip so wires out with different allocated uses and a set of rules about how they are used. All peripherals then follow the same set of rules to communicate to the computer. It means you can easily swap peripherals in and out (unlike your body!) Later versions of the PC bus, that Mark designed, ultimately became an industry standard for desktop computers.

Mark can fairly be called a key member of that PC development team, given he was responsible for a third of the patents behind the PC. He didn’t stop there though. He has continued to be awarded patents, most recently related to artificial neural networks inspired by neuroscience. He has moved on from making computer equivalents of the nervous system to computer equivalents of the brain itself.

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1. 

In space no one can hear you …

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Red arrows aircraft flying close to the ground.
Image by Bruno Albino from Pixabay 
Image by Bruno Albino from Pixabay 

Johanna Lucht could do maths before she learned language. Why? Because she was born deaf and there was little support for deaf people where she lived. Despite, or perhaps because of, that she became a computer scientist and works for NASA. 

Being deaf can be very, very disabling if you don’t get the right help. As a child, Johanna had no one to help her to communicate apart from her mother. She tried to teach Johanna sign language from a book. Throughout most of her primary school years she couldn’t have any real conversations with anyone, never mind learn. She got the lifeline she needed, when the school finally took on an interpreter, Keith Wann, to help her. She quickly learned American Sign Language working with him. Learning your first language is crucial to learning other things and suddenly she was able to learn in school like other children. She caught up remarkably quickly, showing that an intelligent girl had been locked in that silent, shy child. More than anything though, from Keith, she learned never to give up. 

Her early ability in maths, now her favourite subject, came to the fore as she excelled at science and technology. By this point her family had moved from Germany where she grew up to Alaska where there was much more support, an active deaf community for her to join and lots more opportunities that she started to take. She signed up for a special summer school on computing specifically for deaf people at the University of Washington, learning the programming skills that became the foundation for her future career at NASA. At only 17 she even returned to help teach the course. From there, she signed up to do Computer Science at university and applied for an internship at NASA. To her shock and delight she was given a place. 

Hitting the ground running 

A big problem for pilots especially of fighter aircraft is that of “controlled flight into terrain”: a technical sounding phrase that just means flying the plane into the ground for no good reason other than how difficult flying a fighter aircraft as low as possible in hazardous terrain is. The solution is a ground collision avoidance system: basically the pilots need a computer to warn them when hazardous terrain is coming up and when they are too close for comfort, and so should take evasive action. Johanna helped work on the interface design, so the part that pilots see and interact with. To be of any use in such high-pressure situations this communication has to be slick and very clear. 

She impressed those she was working with so much that she was offered a full time job and so became an engineer at NASA Armstrong working with a team designing, testing and integrating new research technology into experimental aircraft. She had to run tests with other technicians, the first problem being how to communicate effectively with the rest of the team. She succeeded twice as fast as her bosses expected, taking only a couple of days before the team were all working well together. Her experience from the challenges she had faced as a child were now providing her with the skills to do brilliantly in a job where teamwork and communication skills are vital. 

Mission control 

Eventually, she gained a place in Mission Control. There, slick comms are vital too. The engineers have to monitor the flight including all the communication as it happens, and be able to react to any developing situation. Johanna worked with an interpreter who listened directly to all the flight communications, signing it all for her to see on a second monitor. Working with interpreters in a situation like this is in itself a difficult task and Johanna had to make sure not only that they could communicate effectively but that the interpreter knew all the technical language that might come up in the flight. Johanna had plenty of experience dealing with issues like that though, and they worked together well, with the result that in April 2017 Johanna became the first deaf person to work in NASA mission control on a live mission … where of course she did not just survive the job, she excelled. 

As Johanna has pointed out it is not deafness itself that disables people, but the world deaf people live in that does. When in a world that wasn’t set up for deaf people, she struggled, but as soon as she started to get the basic help she needed that all changed. Change the environment to one that does not put up obstacles and deaf people can excel like anyone else. In space no one can hear anyone scream or for that matter speak. We don’t let it stop our space missions though. We just invent appropriate technology and make the problems go away. 

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1.