Home » Comp. Sci. / Eng., Mind, News » Trying to make a machine into a human isn’t really new, it turns out

Trying to make a machine into a human isn’t really new, it turns out

Just better with computers.

From “Man as Machine” by Max Byrd (Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2012)

Automates of various kinds have been around since antiquity, as toys or curiosities. But in the middle of the 19th century, in one of the odder artistic enthusiasms the French are famously prone to, a positive mania for automates like the dulcimer player swept the country. People flocked to see them in galleries, museums, touring exhibitions. Watchmakers and craftsmen competed to make more and still more impossibly complex clockwork figures, animals and dolls that would dance, caper, perform simple household tasks—in one case, even write a line or two with pen and ink. The magician Robert Houdin built them for his act. Philosophers and journalists applauded them as symbols of the mechanical genius of the age. Like so many such fads, however, the Golden Age of Automates lasted only a short time. By about 1890 it had yielded the stage to even newer technologies: Edison’s phonograph and the Lumière brothers’ amazing cinematograph.

Yet as every novelist knows, a story always starts earlier than we think. The strange French passion for automates had its true beginnings not in the middle of the 19th century but at least a hundred years earlier, in the cool, absurdly overconfident philosophical speculations of the Enlightenment. And paradoxically enough, this passion had less to do with philosophy than with blasphemy, hypochondria, and a cheerful and Frankensteinian hubris.

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