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Success has many fathers (and mothers)

The branch of mathematics called ‘Information Theory’, which underpins all of our modern digital communication and computing systems, evolved thanks to a string of individuals fascinated by logic, order and a love of algebra. The German, Gottfried Leibniz, the Englishman George Boole and the US-born Claude Shannon, all made major contributions which play a fundamental role in all our lives, every single day. Somewhat surprisingly, intertwined in the history of this serious world of binary numbers, the digit and the bit, is Lord Byron. Famously described as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Bryon lived the most colourful of lives in early nineteenth century London, with his celebrity such that he was the Regency ‘Elvis Presley’ of his day. Amidst his many love affairs and numerous excesses, he was briefly married to Annabella Milbank - who he affectionately called ‘Princess of Parallelograms’ – and from this union was born Ada Lovelace.     

To avoid the romantic ideals and moody nature of Lord Byron, Annabella believed a rigorous course of study rooted in logic and reason was required for Ada and from the age of four she was tutored in mathematics and science. This was a highly unusual for a woman at that time. Aged seventeen, Lovelace met inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, dubbed the “father of the computer”, thanks to the invention of his Analytical Engine. Through her work with Babbage, Ada wrote how the machine could be programmed with a code to make calculations, which is considered to be the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine; in other words, the first computer program. Much more importantly, she foresaw the multi-purpose functionality of computing as we know it today, by arguing any piece of content - including music, text, pictures and sounds - could be translated to digital form and manipulated by machine.

Sadly, Lovelace’s contribution to computing was not recognised until the 1950s, over a hundred years after her death. Indeed, so much is owed to her work and ideas, that when the US Department of Defence were developing a new programming language in the 1970s, it was suggested this be called Ada in her honour. The proposal was universally approved and revised versions of Ada are still used around the world today by the military, as well as in commercial applications such as avionics and air-traffic control systems. 

Why have we been thinking about Ada, binary code and computing?

It is safe to say most of us will be looking forward to saying goodbye to 2020 and it is that time of year when thoughts inevitably turn to the future. 2021 marks an important landmark for Affinity; we have already started our 10th financial year and next autumn will see us turn 10 years old. January will also see the 100th edition of Views from the Desk – an equally important landmark for the authors, as I am sure you can imagine. It was the numbers 10 and 100 which got us thinking about the binary number system; a computer would read these numbers as 1010 and 1100100. Interesting – yes, but extremely simple in the context of a piece of ground breaking tech news which caught our eye a couple of weeks ago. The artificial intelligence group, DeepMind, reported it had cracked a serious scientific problem that had stumped researchers for half a century. With its latest AI program, the company and research laboratory demonstrated it can predict how proteins fold into three dimensional shapes; an astonishingly complex process that is fundamental to understanding the biological machinery of life. Clearly this has created quite a stir across the scientific community, as it will enable researchers to interrogate the mechanisms that drive certain diseases and ultimately pave the way for designer medicines. There are potential applications beyond medicine too, which could – for example - lead to more nutritious crops, or synthetic enzymes able to breakdown pollutants, such as plastics in our oceans.

Implications for portfolios

Our Covid-dominated year has resulted in the tech and biotech sectors moving front and centre in the minds of investors and broader society alike. Invested capital has delivered extremely strong returns in 2020 and the DeepMind breakthrough above, illustrates both these themes will continue to play extremely important roles in portfolios - and our lives  - long after the virus is under control. Alongside these long term opportunities, stakeholder capitalism and the thoughts we expressed in this year’s January and February editions of VTFD, will continue to be a significant influencer behind investor allocations. In particular, we believe successful businesses which implement policies to actively address gender inequality will see their cost of capital fall and - all else being equal - their profits rise. If there is one thing to learn from the story of Anabella Milbank and her daughter Ada, it must be success has many fathers (and mothers!)   

Please do contact us with any questions. In the interim, we wish our readers a happy holidays and look forward to a fresh start in 2021. 

Julia Warrander and Russell Waite

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