History of Automata

and the origins of AI
Module 1, HSS 4440

Why study history of automata?
‡ The first complex machines produced by man were automata (or self moving machines), by means of which he attempted to simulate nature and domesticate natural forces (fly like a bird, swim like a fish). ‡ A study of the history of automata clearly reveals that several of the basic inventions produced for these attempts to imitate life by mechanical means led to significant developments culminating in modern automation.

‡ The practice of using machinery to approximate nature. simulation as we now mean it-. then experimenting on the model and drawing conclusions about its natural prototype-in short. . Simulation in its eighteenth-century usage meant artifice and had a negative connotation. implying fakery. ‡ The word simulation is used here in its modem sense. which originated around the middle of the twentieth century.The pivotal role of 18th century Artificial Life Projects ‡ The origins of this way of thinking are to be found in the second half of the eighteenth century with attempts to simulate with machinery the physiological processes and cognitive behaviours of living creatures.originated then. to mean an experimental model from which one can discover properties of the natural subject.

Materialists repudiated Descartes s separation between mind and body. If life was material. they also changed how people thought about matter and mechanism. Not only did they shape how people thought about living creatures but. then matter was alive. mechanist understanding of life and thought.Materialist-Mechanistic view of the World ‡ The emergence of artificial life in the mid-eighteenth century was crucially informed by a particular philosophical development. and insisted that all the functions that might be ascribed to mind and soul actually resided in the stuff of which living creatures were made. and to see living creatures as machines was also to vivify machinery. animal machinery. . These materialist and mechanist accounts of life worked in both directions. reciprocally. ‡ Mechanists argued that interaction among the body s parts. was directly responsible for all vital and mental processes. namely a materialist.

sometimes warm. began to understand machines as animal-like: soft. both by being identified with each other and by being opposed. then. made manifest. not a reduction of animals to machinery. ‡ These projects in artificial life represented one moment in an ongoing dialectical engagement between our understandings of life and of machinery. at the same time. with fluid parts that acted not only by constraint but by inner purpose. malleable. . but a convergence in people s understanding of animals and of machines. but they also.Relation between animals/humans (life) and machines ‡ Eighteenth-century wetware. Not only did they begin to understand animals as machine-like. in which living creatures and machines have continually redefined each other.

Parallels with current AI ‡ ‡ The eighteenth-century conviction that life. has left behind the purely software model of AI. We have returned to a rigorously literal view of the sameness of living and artificial machinery. have a distinctly eighteenth-century sound. come down to strikingly similar conceptions of the nature of thought. The eighteenth-century materialist-mechanist insistence that the functions of mind were all carried out by the brain. and touch. and thought were essentially embodied in animal and human machinery has striking parallels in current Artificial Intelligence (AI). ‡ ‡ . consciousness. director of the AI Lab at MIT. is founded in the principle that intelligence must be physically grounded and emboidied . and instead builds robots with sensors and feedback loops. in their insistence that intelligence cannot be disembodied. and indeed a recent book on Artificial Life identifies Vaucanson s Duck as the progenitor of the field. and Brooks s claim that the software of the mind cannot be abstracted from its hardware. giving them vision. Brooks s writings about his robots. A prominent school of AI. as distinct from the soul. called Artificial Life. Rodney Brooks. hearing.

‡ He used it to refer to his initial project (before the Duck and the Flute-player). and in which the natural functions of several animals are imitated by the movement of fire.Automata or Moving Anatomies ‡ The wetware approach to artificial life was exemplified. mechanical models of physiological processes. and water. The phrase moving anatomy was Vaucanson s. which he described as a machine containing several automata. in the work of designers of so-called moving anatomies. air. .

The Digesting Duck "an artificial duck of gilt brass which drinks. digests and excretes like a live duck ". the figure of the duck was produced full size of gilt brass in a simplified form. eats. flounders in water. the body pierced with openings to permit the public to observe the process of digestion. It was Vaucanson's intention to create in this duck the "moving anatomy" that he had visualized once before. Accordingly. .

The mechanical duck appeared to have the ability to eat kernels of grain. While the duck did not actually have the ability to do this . or Digesting Duck.the food was collected in one inner container. . so that no actual digestion took place Vaucanson hoped that a truly digesting automaton could one day be designed. was an automaton in the form of a duck. and the pre-stored faeces was 'produced' from a second. and to metabolize and defecate them.The Canard Digérateur. created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739.

The two Novelties of Vaucanson s work ‡ What. He is careful to say that he wants to show. is the meaning of this hybrid animal. ‡ The simultaneous enactment of both the sameness and the incomparability of life and machinery. not just a machine. but a process. partly mechanical and partly (ostensibly) chemical. And the second. no less important. But he is equally careful to say that this process is only a partial imitation. The Duck. ‡ The first was his interest in reproducing inner process. partly transparent and partly ingeniously opaque? Consider the points of emphasis in Vaucanson s description. in its partial fraudulence. partly fraudulent and partly genuine. then. made manifest both the process of mechanical simulation and its boundary. was his organizing assumption that the imitation of life s inner processes had limits. .

not only human. which is now at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. work. and intelligence that they drew from android automata. However. its designer and other commentators drew from it the same sorts of implications regarding the nature of human life. ‡ The loom did not reproduce the motions of a human weaver in the way that the Flute-player enacted those of a human flutist. . His efforts culminated in the automatic loom of 1747. intended for utility rather than mimesis. Vaucanson turned his attention from education to automation and from silk reeling to weaving. The loom looks in retrospect like a very different sort of automaton.Beyond Android Automata ‡ Back in Paris. On that basis. it took over a function that had hitherto been. but highly skilled: the weaving of patterned fabrics.

. Vaucanson wanted to eliminate the silk workers who had run him out of town. He imagined an animist factory in which one sees the fabric weave itself on the loom without human intervention . p. an ass makes fabrics much more beautiful and much more perfect than the most clever workers of silk. and it worked similarly.The Automatic Loom ‡ The loom was a close cousin of Vaucanson s three automata. . 210). A rotating cylinder was perforated according to the pattern to be woven. ‡ Vaucanson boasted that with his machine a horse. the cloth rolls itself onto the cylinder. the reed pounds the cloth. the warp opens. But the full story was more complicated. ‡ These claims were quoted in an enthusiastic review of the loom in November 1745 in the Mercure de France (PV. it was built by the same Parisian artisans. According to his biographers. the shuttle propels itself through. . an ox.

The reading of designs. the only science required is to know how to count to ten. It is so difficult that it requires three or four years to learn. was intended to transform the categories of intelligent and unintelligent work. but also in relation to work that could be done by a machine. this operation became so simple that . the loom and its limited operator constituted neither inert machine nor full human. . But. ‡ According to him any human activity that could be simulated. according to which one measured human labor. did not require intelligence. T ‡ he hybrid was the product of a new principle of classification. on the automatic loom. . even girls. . not only against other human labor. Vaucanson noted. ‡ A hybrid entity. . could be substituted for those who .Mechanical Weaver: Hybrid? ‡ Vaucanson s automatic loom. [are] more intelligent. was the operation that demands the most inteiligence in silk-production. even a very complex one. . ‡ Thus the most limited people. [and] demand a higher salary . his functional simulation of a weaver.

Diderot s Encyclopddie defined artist as the name given to workers in the mechanical arts whose work required the most intelligence. while the work of artisans required the least intelligence. ‡ The particular discrimination between intelligent and unintelligent work was central to the social hierarchy of the Old Regime. for example. The French Physiocrats program of economic reform. . rested on a distinction between productive and sterile workers. Contemporary political economy relied on this demarcation and other. Vaucanson redefined the old categories. Vaucanson did not invent the division of workers into the intelligent and unintelligent. ‡ B ut by making the uncertain boundary between human and machine the center of the spectrum of labor.Hierarchies of Labor/Work under the Ancien Regime ‡ This taxonomic principle worked to transform a scheme already in place. and populating this border region with hybrids comprised of complex machines and limited humans. similar ones.

Designing New Hierarchies of Physical and Mental Labor ‡ Vaucanson demoted the reading of designs. Lorraine Daston has observed that calculation was demoted at the beginning of the nineteenth century from being paradigmatic of intelligence to being mechanical and therefore the antithesis of intelligence. . ‡ Along the same lines. ‡ A rtificial life and artificial intelligence implied new meanings for real life and real intelligence. to the very bottom of the hierarchy-but the comparatively lowly task of silk reeling remained a matter of human skill and was therefore elevated to a higher p0sition. ‡ If a machine could calculate. which had been the most intelligent work. even as they were shaped by what their designers took real life and real intelligence to be. decision making or language-must be emblematic of human intelligence. then something else-say.

like digestion and flute playing. However. which had indicated to de Prony that he could reduce table making to operations simple enough that they could be performed by unskilled workers. ‡ . what shall we think of an engine of wood and metal which can. had to be the work of eminent mathematicians. who in turn said he had been inspired by Adam Smith s description of pin making. de Prony hired hairdressers left unemployed by the transformed hairstyle of the post-Revolutionary era-and their ability to do the job. carrying out the actual calculations. If the Duck was ingenious. . he did not believe in the chess-playing automaton because he said chess was an uncertain process. . was finite and determinate.as it happened. The second level.The top of the hierarchy. And the third. This division of mental labor attributed to the French engineer Gaspard Riche de Prony. required considerable skill. he Babbage wondered.Mechanizing Mental Labor ‡ By the nineteenth century even mental labor was subject to a tripartite hierarchy . establishing the formulas. required so little ability that (Babbage) believed it could be done by calculating engines. working out how to apply the formulas to a given calculation. compute astronomical and navigation tables? He decided he did believe in the calculating engine because arithmetic.

and that life and intelligence were defined precisely by the impossibility of reproducing them. on the other-went into operation in the early part of the eighteenth century. principally the automatic loom. eager to witness the quandaries of natural philosophy dramatized.The Materialist Mechanistic Ambivalence ‡ The contradictory convictions-that one could understand life and intelligence by reproducing them. on the one hand. . ‡ They worked in continual engagement with philosophical developments such as the rise of a materialism that coexisted with a profound ambivalence about mechanist explanations of nature. notably the emergence of a public for popular science. and with economic projects such as industrial rationalization. with social taxonomies like the Old Regime distinction between artists (intelligent) and artisans (unintelligent). with cultural factors. with technological innovations. ‡ The result was a continual redrawing of the boundary between human and machine and redefinition of the essence of life and intelligence.

hear. the modern makers of automata that see. redrawing the same boundary and re-evaluating its implications for the nature of life. and feel in fact have a great deal in common with the eighteenth-century makers of automata that breathed. . work. spoke. ‡ According to Riskin then the second half of the eighteenth century and the second half of the twentieth century have both been periods of simulation.18th century and modern Automata Periods of Simulation ‡ Insofar as we are still. and defecated. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the beginnings of the Information Revolution were both periods of extreme fluidity in people s understandings of what machines were-and indeed in the nature of machines. and thought. in discussions of modern technologies from robotics to cloning. ‡ In other words. They too use machines to simulate life precisely because their conception of machines is no better established than their understanding of life. we are continuing a project whose rudiments were established two and a half centuries ago by the defecating Duck that didn t.

and has in fact come to be used in ways that undermine the contrast between animals and machines: for example. when it is used to refer to artificially intelligent systems that are modeled closely upon human neurology. wetware also unites the two. for instance). then. is the expression of a particular moment. the turn of the twentieth to the twenty-first century The neologism voices one of the organizing ambivalences of the current moment: we believe that the processes of life and consciousness are essentially mechanistic and can therefore be simulated. or to those that resemble biological systems in texture and substance.On Wetware . or any combination of these ( biomimetic or chemomechanical systems made of polymer gels. with its Silicon Valley derivation and its cutting-edge applications. . or to systems that incorporate biological components. and yet we are equally firmly persuaded that the essences of life and consciousness will ultimately be beyond the reach of mechanical reproduction. ‡ Rucker s definition makes manifest the dual action of his new word. ‡ Wetware. Even as it distinguishes animal from artificial machinery.

Jessica (2003) The Defecating Duck. Critical Inquiry 20:599-633. (Riskin 2003:610). Projects in artificial lntelligence (AI) represent an ongoing dialectical engagement (of identity and difference) between our understandings of life and of machinery. Discuss with a contemporary example of AI.Readings ‡ Compulsory ‡ Riskin. ‡ Blog Post 2 : ‡ I find the most striking feature of Vaucanson s automata to have been their simultaneous enactment of both the sameness and the incomparability of life and machinery." Representations 83 (2003): 97-125. The Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life. . ‡ Riskin. "Eighteenth Century Wetware. Jessica. Or.

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