Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

A brief historical survey of automata:

Frolicsome Engines

Machines that imitate voluntary movements, operated by hydraulics, go back at least to the first century. Later, similar mechanisms were also operated by clockwork and by cylinders with pinholes. Pinned cylinders, of course, led in a direct line to punch cards used in automatic looms and eventually to computer punch cards. Charles Babbage, in the 1830s, modeled the operations of his Analytical and Difference Engines on automatic looms.

As the article describes, many of those early automata performed frivolous activities such as soaking unwary visitors with water, not to mention the famous artificial defecating duck mentioned in the title. On a more serious level, medieval automata enacted religious motifs such as mechanized tableaux of Paradise and Hell. In the eighteenth century, pinned cylinders allowed mechanical figures to play musical instruments and produce speech.

Contemporary observers were intrigued by automata on the grounds that perhaps they "genuinely modeled the workings of nature." Automata foregrounded the philosophical theories of the time about "animate versus inanimate matter, willful versus constrained motion, mindless versus intelligent labor." In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, living processes were interpreted in terms of clockwork. Nowadays, we often think of the brain as an organic computer. Our concepts of how life and thought work are heavily influenced by our technology.

Of course, the animated machines of past centuries don't display "intelligence" in any sense we recognize. Yet at the time they inspired speculation about the nature of voluntary versus involuntary action. How much independent action does an artificial device have to be capable of before it transcends the status of a toy to become a robot or an AI? When our older granddaughter was a preschooler, we gave her a talking doll that probably had more brain power than our first computer.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Here's a long essay relevant to this topic, explaining why the "information processing" model of the human brain is a metaphor like any other, and no more accurate than the older ones:
    Your Brain Is Not a Computer