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Celebrating Trans Visibility in Tech
Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility, an occasion to both celebrate the accomplishments of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals as well as an opportunity to highlight the challenges they still face. In support of the ongoing fight for equality, OSOM would like to highlight the impact and accomplishments that individual transgender people have had on technology. You might not know it, but many of the technologies and gadgets you enjoy and take for granted wouldn’t even exist without their work — including the smartphone you’re probably reading these very words on.
Almost every phone you can buy today (and even several computers) share a significant feature: They run on chipsets that use the ARM instruction set. This set of standards ensures software interoperability, simplifying the work of both chip designers and software engineers. The ARM instruction set in the CPU cores of your Android-powered smartphone or iPhone have spearheaded a technical revolution that has empowered billions of people with all the democratizing benefits that widespread internet access can provide. And none of this would exist without Sophie Wilson.
Born in 1957, Wilson is a British engineer who started designing the ARM instruction set at Acorn Computers in 1983 following her work with the BBC Micro — an early and impactful series of computers created for a UK-based education program. The ARM instruction set was one of the earliest so-called “RISC” or reduced instruction set computer architectures, which was a new paradigm in design meant to simplify how computers operated, essentially trading off more complicated software logic for simpler hardware logic. The concept proved advantageous, and in the decades since ARM’s inception, the instruction set has taken over many low-power hardware device categories and markets. In recent years, it has made inroads in other higher-power situations, like Apple’s recent M1- and M2-powered laptops and desktop computers.
According to a recent report by New Street Research, ARM has a 99% market share in mobile, and analysis indicates that the general ARM-based mobile computing market is significantly outperforming Intel and AMD’s x86. It’s almost guaranteed that you have individually benefitted from ARM’s technologies, and you owe those benefits to Sophie Wilson.
Her triumphs have been recognized repeatedly since she first started work on the ARM instruction set. In 2012, Wilson received a Fellow award from the Computer History Museum in 2012. She is also a fellow of the The Royal Society and recipient of the organization’s Royal Society Mullard Award. Wilson is even a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an award just one level short of the “dame” title given by a knighthood.
The current minister of Digital Affairs in Taiwan, Audrey Tang, was the first transgender and non-binary official in the country’s executive cabinet, the youngest such appointee in the country’s history — though it’s worth pointing out that Tang herself identifies politically as a conservative anarchist.
Tang also strongly advocates the Haskell and Perl programming languages, starting projects like the Perl Archive Toolkit. She also started the Pugs project, which was an attempt to kickstart the Perl 6/Raku programming language by implementing the full specification in Haskell. Her attachment to Perl dates back to her childhood, having started learning the language at 12. A globetrotting junior-high dropout, Tang nonetheless worked at several software companies before becoming an entrepreneur at the grand old age of 19.
In her government position, Tang has pushed for increased accessibility in government documentation, creating an open-source version of the government website. She’s also helped to create a digital petition system and sharing economy software for the free exchange of resources. Tang hosts a podcast called Innovative Minds with Audrey Tang, and all of Tang’s meetings as minister are recorded, transcribed, and publicly available.
There are a lot of ways to make computers faster. The obvious one we’re all aware of is the typical, generational, “brute-force” improvements we get from things like faster clock speeds — shoving in more operations per second will make things faster. But not every operation takes the same number of cycles to do, and that opens the door for more subtle and clever ways to improve things one of which Lynn Conway essentially invented while she was at IBM in the 1960s. Thanks to her advancement, the phone or computer you’re reading these words on can perform operations significantly more quickly and with less waste.
This advancement was called out-of-order execution, and it is a way of optimizing how a processing device looks at the instructions that it is sent. Conway is credited with inventing a dynamic instruction handling system that is a key part of how out-of-order execution works. According to details published by IBM, Conway’s advancement provides the part of the system which schedules upcoming operations to “look ahead” at the sort of work they’ll be doing. From that, it can figure out if there is time while it would otherwise be waiting to perform out-of-sequence operations in a way that won’t cause issues for the program. Furthermore, this mechanism can determine when multiple instructions can be simultaneously started, which opens the door for other significant power savings and speed advantages.
In more abstract terms, Conway created a system that allows a computer to consider the work it will be doing in the future and optimize to get more done more efficiently within that time — sort of like cooking a big dinner by sauteing something on the stove at the same time something else is in the microwave, all while you’re waiting for whatever is in the oven to be done. And this is an advancement that all modern high-performance CPUs use, including the device you are reading this on.
As fundamentally important as this discovery was, Conway was fired from IBM in the 1960s after she announced her decision to transition and denied access to her children. Later she worked for Xerox PARC to help optimize silicon wafer design — again, making history by starting the Mead-Conway VLSI chip design paradigm. Conway wrote a textbook on the subject that was considered the go-to authority for years, creating a revolution in the silicon industry that can be tied to the modern approach in foundry-based chip design and production. This a system that we owe many modern speed advances to.
Conway is currently retired, but her efforts are directly responsible for an increase in the rate at which computers have became faster over the last four decades, and she’s been repeatedly recognized for major awards over the years, including honorary doctorates from several prestigious schools and numerous fellow, achievement, and yearly category awards. Most recently, in 2023, she was selected for induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The daughter of Croatian refugees, Alexia Massalin has been called “the Einstein of our time” by Wired magazine She created the concept of superoptimization, which allows compilers that break down programming languages into code that can be executed to find the most optimal sequence of instructions.
You might not be aware of it, but there are a lot of ways to perform the same set of instructions inside a computer, and some are faster or better in certain applications than others — typically, what you want is the shortest possible set of operations for the quickest results. Metaphorically, think of adding two different numbers together. There are a lot of different ways you can do that yourself, from subtracting from one side and adding to the other one at a time, lining up common digits and adding columns, etc., and some take longer for you to do with a pencil on paper than others even if they ultimately arrive at the same result.
Massalin’s 1987 paper “Superoptimizer — A Look at the Smallest Program” (direct PDF warning) describes a system that finds the shortest program that can compute a given function, searching across the processor’s supported instruction sets for all possible combinations that can arrive at the result. It’s a brute-force solution that requires looking at every possible combination (it is “NP-hard,” in programmer speak), so it isn’t a fast process to do in itself, but when it finds the optimal solution, the code it generates is the fastest version of that code that you can produce. This process of superoptimization can be further fed back to the programmer to help them improve their own code-writing, too.
Superoptimizers are available for several different architectures, from x86 chips for laptops and desktops, down to microcontrollers, the Java virtual machine, and even WebAssembly, offering improved performance with no real user-facing downsides.
Massalin also created the Synthesis kernel for UNIX, a highly optimized and small kernel that can generate new routines for specific situations on demand. The details get technical fast, but Synthesis allows a kernel to be both exceptionally small and harness runtime optimizations for frequently used calls. In short, Synthesis can make itself faster for operations it frequently does. That saves time, and saved time increases speed. Furthermore, inventing this system required the creation of a whole new category of data structure in computer science called the “quaject” — another achievement.
While your computer almost assuredly isn’t using a Synthesis kernel, the system has provided other benefits in the field of computer science, and superoptimizers are actively used, perhaps by programs and apps you take advantage of yourself.
These are just four names among a much larger list of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming computer programmers, scientists, game designers, and other individuals in technical fields, like Kate Craig-Wood, Angelica Ross, Ashawna Hailey, Danielle Bunten Berry, Anne Ogborn, and many more. On this Trans Day of Visibility, we remember the profound impact these people have had on the industry we work in, the gadgets we enjoy, the games we play, and the tools we use to make our living. And, as Charlie Martin points out, there’s so much more we can do to help empower the people we trust and depend on to work alongside us.