Hedy Lamarr, the silver screen siren behind signal switching

The film biography ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ is released in the UK on 8 March, International Women’s Day. Alongside her acting career, Lamarr was a talented inventor, and her solution for guiding torpedoes influenced the wireless communications essential to modern life, including GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

The recent 90th Academy Awards ceremony celebrated the best and brightest talents from across the global film industry. But if any of the Oscar recipients held a patent as well as a golden statuette they kept it quiet on the red carpet. Over 70 years ago one of the silver screen’s most celebrated actors, Hedy Lamarr, was also a patent-holding inventor whose work has had an immeasurable impact on modern life.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Lamarr launched her film career in Berlin before being brought to Hollywood by Louise B. Mayer in 1938. She soon became famous for her roles as an exotic femme fatale in films such as Algiers and Samson and Delilah, often given very few lines. The resulting boredom reputedly led her to start inventing.

Largely self-taught, Lamarr had a table set up in her dressing table where she could work on her ideas, like a tissue disposal attachment for tissue boxes. She dated aviation Howard Hughes who supported her ‘tinkering’ by giving her access to scientists and engineers. When she worked on a cube that could be added to water to make a sparkling drink, Hughes ‘lent her a pair of chemists’, but their contribution couldn’t stop it from tasting like Alka-Seltzer. At the other end of the scale, Lamarr helped Hughes modify his aircraft designs to make them faster, studying the aerodynamics of birds and fish to make the wings more streamlined and efficient.

Spread spectrum pioneer: the invention of a technology vital to the modern world

During World War II, Lamarr helped promote the sale of war bonds, but wanted to do something more practical to help, especially after she heard of the sinking of the transport ship SS City of Benares, which had been carrying 90 child evacuees from the UK to Canada.

She had gained knowledge of torpedoes from her first husband Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian arms manufacturer and prominent fascist, and learnt that the radio signals that control them could be jammed, sending them off course. Lamarr was great friends with avant-garde composer and polymath George Antheil who had developed a method of programming 16 player pianos from a central console. This represented perfectly the idea she had for a synchronised a sender and receiver for torpedoes controlled by frequency-hopping signals that would enable them to avoid enemy jamming.

Lamarr and Mandl jointly submitted patent number US2292387A with Lamarr using her name from her marriage to her second husband, Hedy Kiesler Markey, and it was awarded in 1941. The US Navy never adopted the technology during the course of the war, either due to its reluctance to embrace technology developed outside of the military or its inability to see beyond the use of a piano roll-inspired coded tape. However, in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the Navy started using an updated version of the ‘spread spectrum’ technology on its ships.

The influence of Lamarr and Mandl’s work can be seen today Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, spurring the digital communications technology that forms the backbone of mobile phone networks.

Lamarr’s inventiveness stayed with her until late in life. She proposed a new type of traffic light, a system to help movement-impaired people get out of the bath, a glow-in-the-dark dog collar, a skin-tautening technique and modifications to the design of the Concorde supersonic aircraft.

While she received little recognition in her lifetime beyond her on-screen career, her contribution has become widely appreciated in recent years. In 1997 she and Antheil were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award, and Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award for inventors.

Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, the year that would have been her 100th birthday. The following year Lamarr’s inventions were celebrated in arguably the best animated Google Doodle of all time.

This International Women’s Day the release of ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ serves as a timely reminder that a woman who was best known in her lifetime for her looks had talent that ran as deep as the torpedoes her invention guided.

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”