Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence – Jessica Riskin

The Public Domain Review, May 4, 2016

Defecating ducks, talking busts, and mechanised Christs — Jessica Riskin on the wonderful history of automata, machines built to mimic the processes of intelligent life.

How old are the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence? Many might trace their origins to the mid-twentieth century, and the work of people such as Alan Turing, who wrote about the possibility of machine intelligence in the ’40s and ’50s, or the MIT engineer Norbert Wiener, a founder of cybernetics. But these fields have prehistories — traditions of machines that imitate living and intelligent processes — stretching back centuries and, depending on how you count, even millennia.

The word “robot” made its first appearance in a 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek entitled R.U.R., for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Deriving his neologism from the Czech word “robota”, meaning “drudgery” or “servitude”, Čapek used “robot” to refer to a race of artificial humans who replace human workers in a futurist dystopia. (In fact, the artificial humans in the play are more like clones than what we would consider robots, grown in vats rather than built from parts.)

There was, however, an earlier word for artificial humans and animals, “automaton”, stemming from Greek roots meaning “self-moving”. This etymology was in keeping with Aristotle’s definition of living beings as those things that could move themselves at will. Self-moving machines were inanimate objects that seemed to borrow the defining feature of living creatures: self-motion. The first-century-AD engineer Hero of Alexandria described lots of automata. Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping.

The siphon would have had a particular attraction to the ancient automaton-maker, in that it makes water travel upward, counter to what it would otherwise do. According to Aristotle, while living things moved themselves at will, inanimate things moved according to their natures: heavy things, made of earth or water, descended, while light things, made of air or fire, ascended. A siphon, by allowing water to ascend, appears to violate Aristotle’s principle, and it also tends to work intermittently, creating the illusion of wilful behavior.

Waterworks, including but not limited to ones using siphons, were probably the most important category of automata in antiquity and the middle ages. Flowing water conveyed motion to a figure or set of figures by means of levers or pulleys or tripping mechanisms of various sorts. A late twelfth-century example by an Arabic automaton-maker named Al-Jazari is a peacock fountain for hand washing, in which flowing water triggers little figures to offer the washer first a dish of perfumed soap powder, then a hand towel.

Such hydraulic automata became ubiquitous on the grounds of palaces and wealthy estates. So-called “frolicsome engines” were to be found as early as the late thirteenth century at the French chateau of Hesdin, the account books of which mention mechanical monkeys, “an elephant and a he-goat”.1 Over the next two centuries, the chateau collection expanded to include “3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”; a “window where, when people wish to open it, a personage in front of it wets people and closes the window again in spite of them”; a “lectern on which there is a book of ballades, and, when they try to read it, people are all covered with black, and, as soon as they look inside, they are all wet with water”; a “mirror where people are sent to look at themselves when they are besmirched, and, when they look into it, they are once more all covered with flour, and all whitened”, and so on, and so on.2

By the time the French essayist and diarist Michel de Montaigne went traveling through Europe in 1580–81, hydraulic automata had grown so commonplace that he grew bored, though he continued dutifully to record them in his travel diary. At one palace, for example, he saw sprays of water from “brass jets” activated by springs. “While the ladies are busy watching the fish play, you have only to release some spring: immediately all these jets spurt out thin, hard streams of water to the height of a man’s head, and fill the petticoats and thighs of the ladies with this coolness”.3

Twenty years later, the French King Henri IV hired the Italian engineer Tomaso Francini to build him some waterworks for the royal palace at Saint Germain en Laye. Francini built hydraulic grottoes devoted to the Greek pantheon and their adventures: Mercury played a trumpet and Orpheus his lyre; Perseus freed Andromeda from her dragon. There were automaton blacksmiths, weavers, millers, carpenters, knife-grinders, fishermen, and farriers conducting the obligatory watery attacks on spectators… [+]

Automatic melancholy: an elegiac robot.

CIORAN, The trouble with being born


I breathe out of prejudice. And I contemplate the spasm of ideas, while the Void smiles at itself. . . . No more sweat in space, no more life; the least vulgarity will make it reappear: a second’s waiting will suffice.

When we perceive ourselves existing we have the sensation of a stupefied madman who surprises his own lunacy and vainly seeks to give it a name. Habituación blunts our amazement at being: we are —and move on, we go back to our place in the asylum of the existing

A conformist, I live, I try to live, by imitation, by respect for the rules of the game, by horror of originality. An automaton’s resignation: to affect a pretense of fervor and secretly to laugh at it; to bow to conventions only to repudiate them on the sly; to be numbered in every ledger but to have no residence in time; to save face whereas it would be only duty to lose it. . . .

The man who scorns everything must assume an air of perfect dignity, deceive the others and even himself: thereby he will the more easily accomplish his task of counterfeit living. What use displaying your failure when you can feign prosperity? Hell lacks manners: it is the exasperated image of a frank and uncouth man, it is the earth conceived without one superstition of elegance and civility.

I accept life out of politeness: perpetual rebellion is in bad taste, as is the sublimity of suicide. At twenty we rage against the heavens and the filth they hide; then we grow tired of it. The tragic attitude suits only an extended and ridiculous puberty; but it takes a thousand ordeals to achieve the histrionics of detachment.

The man who, liberated from all the principles of custom, lacks any gift as an actor is the archetype of wretchedness, the ideally unhappy being. No use constructing this model of ingenuousness: life is tolerable only by the degree of mystification we endow it with. Such a model would be the immediate rain of society, the “pleasure” of communal life residing in the impossibility of giving free rein to the infinity of our ulterior motives. It is because we are all impostors that we endure each other. The man who does not consent to lie will see the earth shrink under his feet: we are biologically obliged to the false. No moral hero who is not childish, ineffectual, or inauthentic; for true authenticity is the flaw in fraud, in the proprieties of public flattery and secret defamation. If our fellow men could be aware of our opinions about them, love, friendship, and devotion would be forever erased from the dictionaries; and if we had the courage to confront the doubts we timidly conceive about ourselves, none of us would utter an “I” without shame. Masquerade rules all the living, from the troglodyte to the skeptic. Since only the respect for appearances separates us from carrion, it is death to consider the basis of things, of beings; let us abide by a more agreeable nothingness: our constitution tolerates only a certain dosage of truth. . . .

Let us keep deep down inside a certitude superior to all the others: life has no meaning, it cannot have any such thing. We should kill ourselves on the spot if an unlooked for revelation persuaded us of the contrary. The air gone, we should still breathe; but we should immediately smother if the joy of inanity were taken from us. . .

CIORAN, E. M., “The Automaton”, A Short History Of Decay (Précis de Décomposition). Transl. by Richard Howard. New York: Arcade, 1998.

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