Hedy Lamarr – Technology is eternal

Early in October the “Digital Days” 2020 took place in Vienna, at the end of which the Hedy Lamarr Award of the City of Vienna was awarded. You can watch the mostly German ceremony here.
This prize honours female researchers in Austria for their innovative achievements in IT. Since we at DreiKreis also strive to support women and make pioneers in the industry more visible, we have summarised keynote, eulogy and acceptance speech of winner, Laura Nenzi, TU Wien, for you.

(c) Urban Innovation Vienna/David Bohmann

Hedy Lamarr, role model for female scientists? Editor-in-chief of Viennese magazine Wienerin, Barbara Haas, addresses this question in her keynote.

Beauty, fame, and scandal… And brains?

Celebrated as the most beautiful woman in the world, the actress won fame through Hollywood movies, scandalous nude scenes, six marriages, arrest for theft and multiple cosmetic surgeries.

But who was the woman behind the idolised façade and why is there a price bearing her name? Who was Hedy Lamarr, born in 1914 as Hedwig Kiesler in Döbling, when she didn’t dazzle film producers and moviegoers alike?

Radio controlled torpedoes
against Nazi Germany

Lamarr says she had an inventive mind since
childhood. In her early 20s she escaped her
first marriage to an Austrian
munition-manufacturer in pre-war Vienna
to act in MGM movies in Hollywood. As the
allied forces seem to be on the brink of losing
their war in Europe, she had an idea.

At that time, German submarines seemed to be unstoppable, British torpedoes not effective enough. Hedy’s plan was to develop a secure radio-communication between warship and the launched torpedo, so that the missile could be directed more effectively and, most importantly, without the possibility of interference.

Lamarr’s idea of frequency hopping came too early – it wasn’t deployed until much later. Today’s estimated worth: 30 Billion Dollar

She later recollects: “I wanted to even the balance for Great Britain against Nazi Germany.” (For a comprehensive story about her invention, please see our next article: Hedy Lamarr, tragic genius – role model for today’s IT scientists).

Propaganda instead of publication

But the American military suggested that the 27-year-old should leave inventions to professionals (men) and instead aid the war-effort by selling kisses and boosting the soldiers’ morale. How frustrating it must have been for her lively and brilliantly innovative spirit, to be ordered by MGM to play the dumb sex-symbol in a second-rate movie, designed to keep men at the front entertained?

It should take the world another 45 years to begin recognising her genius as well as her ingenious idea, which was subsequently used for technologies like Bluetooth. Finally, in 1990, Forbes magazine wrote about Lamarr “beautiful yes, stupid no”.

Female scientists – role models today?

This year’s laureate, Laura Nenzi is, like Lamarr, scientist and actress
(c) Urban Innovation Vienna/David Bohmann

The story of Hedy Lamarr is tragic. Surely an isolated incident? In her keynote, Haas draws parallels to female role models today. And makes a disturbing discovery: Women, she says, are still strongly stereotyped, often reduced to sex appeal and beauty. Female influencers on social media and in women’s magazines are mainly famed for typical women’s topics – even in 2020. Female expertise on the other hand is shockingly underrepresented.

The editor-in-chief adds: “The situation has been exacerbated by the Corona crisis, which was explained to the public mainly by men!“

Women today –  still held to stereotypes and underrepresented.

Even machines discriminate. Haas points out cases of discriminatory artificial intelligence (AI):  Soap dispensers that don’t release for darker skinned hands, self-driving vehicles worse at detecting people with darker skin and algorithms grant tighter credit card limits to women even though they have the same or higher score. Why? Haas has got an answer: “Because they have been developed by white, male programmers!”

Notwithstanding her fractured biography, or rather because of it, Hedy Lamarr is a role model for female scientists, says the editor-in-chief, and ends: “There was an inextricable contradiction between the role men tried to push her into and the one that would have allowed her to live her considerable innovative capabilities.”

Making role models visible

In their eulogy, Professors Martina Lindorfer and Laura Kovacs, both TU Wien, members of the jury, emphasised how important women in science are as role models for future generations.

We need female role models in science!

“The pandemic shows how much our society is driven by software technology,” says Prof Kovacs. “We use autonomous devices, contact tracing, social media and all these platforms are based on artificial intelligence. However, we rarely ask how secure these systems really are.”

Prof Kovacs voices concern about the security of intelligent systems.
(c) Urban Innovation Vienna/David Bohmann

She continues: “This is why the research of this year’s winner, Laura Nenzi (PostDoc Researcher, Informatics, TU Wien), where she combines logic and mathematics to predict and explain how intelligent machines will behave, is especially important.

We need to understand technology

Laura Nenzi used her acceptance speech to stress how important it is to familiarise ourselves with the systems that we all use.

Everyone should have a basic understanding of technology!

“In a society where technology is everywhere, we need to have an idea about what we are using. I’m striving to make technology more understandable, to reach people!”

As Hedy Lamarr said: Technology is forever!

More Lamarr

Entertainment and information about Hedy Lamarr can be found in the documentary „Bombshell – The Hedy Lamarr Story“ (2017, director: Alexandra Dean)

Watch out for a comprehensive article about the infamous actress and her groundbreaking idea here at DreiKreis as well as an interview with laureate Laura Nenzi over the coming weeks.