What do punch cards and autonomous vehicles have in common? CBS newsman and humorist Mo Rocca takes Bryan and Megan on a tour of yesteryear with an inspiring tale of the founding mother of computer programming, plus what he looks for when profiling modern-day changemakers on “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.”

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Episode Transcript

Megan Harris

Hey everyone! This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence. I’m the producer of the show, Megan Harris.

Bryan Salesky

And I’m Bryan Salesky.

Megan Harris

I’m jumping in for fan-favorite Alex Roy today to talk about computer programming. Now stick with me here. It takes a lot of skill to tell a machine how to reliably and consistently complete a task. In many ways, it’s the bedrock of everything that makes self-driving possible.

Joining us today to talk about a founding mother of that craft is CBS Sunday Morning correspondent and humorist Mo Rocca. Mo, welcome to No Parking.

Mo Rocca

Thanks Megan. Good to be with you and Bryan.

Bryan Salesky

Thanks Mo.

Megan Harris

Mo, we’re going to get to that programming point, but very briefly, I wanted to talk about your ongoing work with The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation. It’s a TV show, part of CBS’s Saturday Morning lineup. And it’s full of modern day change-makers and inventors. And it’s also now in its seventh season?? What’s been your favorite part of that experience so far?

Mo Rocca

The show, as you point out, profiles innovators of today and tomorrow’s change-makers. And we also look at some of the great innovators, some of them well known, some not, from past. And I love telling their stories and drawing a connection between what they did that, you know, even somebody like Edison, as monumental as he was, was not superhuman. He was just a person who failed a lot before he succeeded then failed more before he succeeded and then kept failing and then kept succeeding. And I think it’s so important to make those connections.

And I hate to fall into this modern parlance, but to kind of lean in to failure because I worry on social media that #FAIL is used like a cudgel to kind of discourage people. And it’s just, it’s so integral to kind of making any change in succeeding. Like a story like Igor Sikorsky, who created the helicopter. I mean, this is a guy who was a boy growing up in Russia. He reads a story written by Jules Verne that imagines a single-rotor propeller aircraft that takes off and lands vertically. This idea is planted in young Igor Sikorsky’s head, he comes to America and then he spends decades trying and failing and trying and failing. It’s too ahead of its time. The technology is not there. But it eventually takes flight.

Bryan Salesky

Definitely resonates with me. I’ve spent my whole career working on stuff that doesn’t work. Eventually it will, Mo. I promise we’ll have self-driving cars someday.

Mo Rocca

Bryan, I have heard that the technology actually already exists for a flying car, which is what people dreamed about for so long, but that it’s just too expensive. It’s just not… Like some stuff is possible, but just not desirable.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah, that’s totally true. I mean, certainly the technology today costs quite a bit. I think over time as it gets adopted and we get… It sort of follows various laws of physics, such as, as volumes go up, prices come down. And we’ll get there eventually. You know, that’s part of why shared mobility is such a big potential for how this technology will get deployed in that you don’t actually need to afford a self-driving car to use one. You can hail it just like you do with Uber or Lyft car today, right?

Mo Rocca

Sorry. Did you say “Cher’s mobility?”

Bryan Salesky

Shared mobility. Shared mobility.

Mo Rocca

I love Cher and she’s still very mobile.

Bryan Salesky

And I think that’s the whole idea, right? Is you can, you can pay for your ride and over time you can pay back the cost of of the technology. But definitely, you know, the idea of… We always talk about failing fast and learning from that. That’s sort of an ethos that I think a lot of folks that are tackling really hard problems is something that you just eventually get real comfortable with.

Mo Rocca

I’m comfortable with it.

Megan Harris

Mo, your new book, Mobituaries, celebrates the lives of people who, for various reasons, maybe didn’t get their due at the time of their death. It’s an extension of a fantastic podcast by the same name. And I’m curious about one person in particular: Ada Lovelace. She’s credited with being the world’s first computer programmer… in 1843. So what drew you to her story?

Mo Rocca

Well, I was actually drawn to her story by my work at the Henry Ford Museum, because I was looking at the Jacquard loom, which was a loom created by a French man named Jacquard. And the punch card system that this loom used is sort of the precursor to digital technology, where there was either a hole or there was not, so like a zero or a one, depending on whether there was a hole or not, the needle would go through or not go through. And that’s how patterns were created. There was a man, a mathematician, named Charles Babbage who had created something called a difference engine, kind of one of the very first computers. And then meanwhile, a young woman named Ada Lovelace who was… I’m trying to think of the equivalent. She was almost like Blue Ivy or something. Like she was really famous just as a baby because…

Megan Harris

For all of our car nerds, Blue Ivy is the progeny of Beyonce and Jay-Z.

Mo Rocca

Right? Exactly. She was the progeny of Lord Byron, who was the dashing poet, romantic poet and his wife who was a beautiful socialite. The marriage busted up pretty early, because Lord Byron ended up having an affair with his half sister, you know, as these things happen. And so the parents divorced. He left in scandal. But a young Ada was obsessed with math. She was, as opposed to her father who was a man of letters, she was drawn to numbers and to math. I was introduced to her story at The Henry Ford when we were doing this story on the Jacquard loom and how that influenced Charles Babbage and a young Ada Lovelace to eventually write the world’s first computer program.

Megan Harris

You talk about, you know, her being drawn to math, but she was also encouraged pretty heavily to stay away from people of letters like her father, right? She was encouraged to study math.

Mo Rocca

Right. Her mother understandably discouraged her from hanging out with people who were more into letters than numbers. And she took to math and she loved it. And her mother had been called by Lord Byron, the Princess of Parallelograms. And eventually Ada herself would be known as the Enchantress of Numbers.

But she went to see Charles Babbage, his invention, the difference engine, at a salon in London. And she instantly was not only transfixed by it, but she understood it. Babbage then eventually came up with an even more grandiose plan for something called an analytical engine, an even larger version of this early computer. And though it was never actually functioning, she took, it gets a little complicated, but she took a document that had been written about the analytical engine in Italian and she translated it into English, but she added her own notes to this translation. And this is her chief contribution. In the notes, she explained how this analytical engine could be used to calculate Bernoulli Sequence, which is a mathematical principle that I don’t know and can’t explain. But essentially she created an algorithm.

Megan Harris

The first algorithm, right?

Mo Rocca

Exactly. It was the first algorithm. She spelled out, step by step, how this would-be machine could calculate Bernoulli Sequence. And she also speculated that the analytical engine could be used in music composition. So she really made the leap from calculation to computation to speculating on what a computer could really do beyond just calculation. You know, she died when she was 36. So not only heartbreaking, but you just think about what else she could have accomplished in her life.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah, there must’ve been a ton of potential there, right? I mean, you see at such a young age, what she was able to do. Mo, have you actually seen the Babbage machine? There’s actually a working prototype in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Mo Rocca

Yeah. Well, I knew there was a working prototype and the difference engine, that was never created in full, but the model of it, the prototype, I know does exist and I’ve seen pictures.

Bryan Salesky

It’s incredible to actually see it in action. I mean, you would think that it’s otherwise some giant industrial machine that’s, you know, meant to do something, anything, other than actually manipulating numbers. It’s incredible to see it and it’s even more incredible for me to think that she took an Italian manuscript and figured out how to sort of extend this machine’s capability into, like you said, something that doesn’t just crunch numbers, but can actually follow logical sequences and some notion of flow. Right?

You know, we talk about, as programmers, being able to… When we write a program, it’s a sequence of rules. It’s a bunch of… We think of things and break down the problems into as simple of a set of rules as possible and then program in all these ‘if then L’ sequences. What she did was she recognized how to take a number crunching machine and be able to use variables in such a way that they didn’t just represent quantities or numbers, but they actually represented some assemblance of information, right? It represented, in an abstract way, different operations and sequences and other flow information that allows you to actually assemble an algorithm. At that day and age, that’s a pretty incredible insight.

Mo Rocca

Well, it’s the definition of a visionary, right?

Bryan Salesky

Very much so. Unbelievable.

Megan Harris

Guys, I’m curious as you look back on something like this, it seems to me, a lay person not a programmer, that it’s kind of amazing that we were using the concept of a punch card in the textile industry in the early 19th century. And we were still using punch cards, maybe in a more nuanced way, in the mid 20th century. Why was there no innovation in the margins there?

Mo Rocca

Bryan, do you want to take that one?

Bryan Salesky

You know a lot of work had to go had to happen to go from her, sort of the era that she was in, to an era where we actually had some semblance of a modern computer. I mean, even before the transistor, if you look at the really early stages of computers, they were these very giant, filled the size of rooms, to do essentially what Babbage was trying to do, but at a slightly larger scale. And we used punch cards back then to be able to organize some sequence or flow of operations. But you know, it took decades of research in order to even even go from Babbage’s concept, which I don’t believe he ever fully finished or completed or got working. Right, Mo?

Mo Rocca

He didn’t, the original difference machine was going to have 25,000 parts.

Bryan Salesky

Exactly.

Mo Rocca

And, as you pointed out, the prototype, the model is still gigantic.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah. And to give you an idea, a modern vehicle has about 25,000 parts that comes together, right? So imagine what he was trying to tackle. So it took many decades to go from that to something that was actually implementable.

Megan Harris

When we think about the pioneers behind this digital revolution, we so often think of men. Mo, you pointed this out in your book. How important do you think that it is for us to acknowledge a woman as one of our earliest inventors, especially in the field of computer programming?

Mo Rocca

Well, I think it’s hugely important. I think… What is the figure? I think it’s still over 80% of programmers in Silicon Valley are men, right? So I think it’s hugely important. The digital revolution, it sort of cuts both ways in terms of inspiring young innovators. So technology is all around us. We’re fascinated by it. We hold it in our hands, but it’s also invisible. And so, you know, our kids taking apart an iPhone and putting it back together the way that they even did with, say a transistor radio, you know, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. So I know on the show that I host, we try to make those connections between the digital innovator is doing… What their skill set is, is very similar to the skillset of the mechanical tinkers of yesteryear. And not to think that it’s some kind of magic and voodoo that’s going on today.

Bryan Salesky

It’s very true. When you see the Babbage machine operate, you can feel and hear every single, literally every number as it pushes through the machine. I mean, it is such a physical, tangible thing. That’s part of the beauty of it. And then you then look at how a modern computer works and it just, it does have the appearance of complete magic to the point where it’s easy to take for granted. But it’s also a little bit hard to get people somewhat interested in it. Right? To be able to take it to the next level. And that’s the beauty of where robotics falls into education, is that there’s all of this high tech stuff and there’s a lot of software that goes into it, but you get to see the fruits of your labor at the end of the day in a very, very tangible way. It’s a very extendable way, a very attractive way for kids to learn science, math and technology.

Megan Harris

Is that an exciting challenge? As you look ahead, trying to get more women in the field or just children of any stripe interested in STEM education? And, Mo, to you as well, trying to find some of these stories for people who are engaged in this work and celebrated on a national platform.

Mo Rocca

Most innovations, or maybe any innovation, has a dramatic story behind it. And I think by telling those stories that it’s not just about, you know, dehumanized wonky data points. These are sweeping dramas of struggle and ultimately hopefully achievement. And I hope that humanizing it that way, pulls people in and that people can imagine themselves being the lead actors of these dramas. So that’s where I think the stories of innovation can help pull people in of all backgrounds. So it doesn’t seem like it’s just something for white guys in Silicon Valley.

Bryan Salesky

And you get to show how these were people who sometimes came from very humble backgrounds, and also who they were dreamers. They didn’t know how to get from A to B, but they sort of figured it out. I think telling those stories hopefully resonates with some kids that, ‘Hey, you know what, I could do this. I don’t know how to get from A to B either, but it’s one step at a time.’ I think laying out those pathways is more important than ever right now.

Mo Rocca

I think great innovators also don’t just identify a need now, they can leap into the future and imagine the need of tomorrow, the needs of tomorrow, and maybe frankly, create those needs themselves. And so much of it is about imagination. I mean, I end each episode of the show saying dream big and don’t quit. And the two have to go together. Dreaming, of course it’s important, and dreaming big, but the stick-to-it-iveness, a word that belongs in the dictionary in my opinion, is the other half.

Bryan Salesky

They’re mission-driven is what you’re saying.

Mo Rocca

Yeah. They’re mission-driven. Science and creativity, they’re like, they’re not opposites. They are… I mean, this is all creative work.

Megan Harris

You can find Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving in print or listen to his podcast wherever you find your favorites. Mo, thanks so much.

Mo Rocca

Of course, guys. Thanks.

Megan Harris

That’s it for this episode of No Parking. If you’re liking the new season, please let us know by reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts, Google, Spotify, and more. You can find us on Twitter @NoParkingPod.

I’m Megan Harris, the producer of the program. The indomitable Alex Roy will be back with you next time.

This is the No Parking podcast.