All Your Automata are Belong to Us

From a visit to the Musée Mecanique in San Francisco in Spring 2001, uploaded to Flickr on September 9, 2005 by conradh

automatum. Pl. automata, -atons.

1. lit. Something which has the power of spontaneous motion or self-movement.

2. A living being viewed materially.

3. A piece of mechanism having its motive power so concealed that it appears to move spontaneously; ‘a machine that has within itself the power of motion under conditions fixed for it, but not by it’ (W. B. Carpenter). In 17-18th c. applied to clocks, watches, etc., and transf. to the Universe and World; now usually to figures which simulate the action of living beings, as clock-work mice, images which strike the hours on a clock, etc.

4. A living being whose actions are purely involuntary or mechanical.

5. A human being acting mechanically or without active intelligence in a monotonous routine. (from the Oxford English Dictionary)


My father is a life long mechanic, forever curious about the way things work. His skill is especially directed toward physical relationships, and he can diagnose any mechanical object the way a doctor might do for your symptoms. What is most amazing to me, his son with no such skill, is how he can look at an unusual mechanism or a blueprint for something like a canoe or a kitchen, and within minutes apprehend accurately how to take it apart or build it from scratch.What did get passed on to me is a fascination with the mechanisms in and of themselves. Especially the ones that pass into our world as just another technical miracle, which become, like so many other miracles, the fabric of our everyday.

I turn on my computer, I drive my car, I play records and CDs on my stereo, I write checks with my pen, turn the key in my lock, answer cell phone calls with my land line, drink pomegranate juice with ice cubes…and on and on the marvels of our age stare back at me. If put to the test I doubt that there is even one of those objects that I could satisfactorially describe not only how they work much less recreate it anew if I were unable to buy it at the store tomorrow. Probably my bicycle, that’s something I understand a little better and it might take me a while, but thanks to growing up with my dad I’d have a better chance of making a bike than anything else.

Which leads me to my love of automata. You may have noticed that my online moniker is Vaucanson’s Duck. An image of the inner works of this 18th century mechanical miracle is on the bottom of my sidebar, and I have even adopted the image as my logo; when in Amsterdam last year I sketched my own take on this famous image, and ordered a rubber stamp from the master stamp makers at de Posthumus winkel to use on collages and handbound books that I make. I highly recommend them if you ever need custom work done; they were helpful, timely and produced a masterpiece of detailing from my sketch.

Vaucanson’s duck was one of several automata that he produced in his life, each one unimaginably clever and possibly impossible to replicate today. His duck looked for all purposes like a living one, would waddle about on its own, eat food offered to it and, most amazing to people of his day, would excrete genuine duck kaka.

Vaucanson also created in his day a working life-size flute player that could play a dozen songs, and whose lips, tongue, and fingers could move. An internal bellows system controlled the force of the air, varying the breath to produce different octaves. He introduced his automata in France in 1738, and though the duck was at the same exhibition his flute player garnered the lion’s share of the press. We sure love to look in the mirror…


“The [Conscious-Automaton] theory maintains that in everything outward we are pure material machines. Feeling is a mere collateral product of our nervous processes, unable to react upon them any more than a shadow reacts on the steps of the traveller whom it accompanies. Inert, uninfluential, a simple passenger in the voyage of life, it is allowed to remain on board, but not to touch the helm or handle the rigging.” William James, one of the greatest philosophers of human consciousness and desire, wrote this at the beginning of his Are We Automata? essay in the 1879 edition of Mind. Automata, especially once they advanced beyond the realm of a child’s plaything, have inspired deep-seated anxieties about the meaning of life, and about the existence of a God.

Automaton on display in the Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement (from musical clock to street organ) in Utrecht, Uploaded to Flickr on September 12, 2006 by Geoff Coupe

The heart of the fear, often correlated with meaninglessness, is that we are without feeling and spiritually alone in the universe. Often we map this fear on animals, in order to differentiate our idea of self-consciousness and to justify our importance. As Nicolas Malebranche (August 6, 1638 – October 13, 1715) said about animals, “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes has often been taken to task for similar beliefs, and though he never did go so far as to assert that animals have no consciousness he did believe that they were automata. 

Who could blame him? Select passages in the Bible are used to justify our dominion over the lives of animals and life on Earth. Back in Decartes’ day, beheaded frogs were a common sight used to demonstrate a lower animal’s stimulus/response functions, or rather their essential puppetry. “Thus if I merely remove his hemispheres and tilt my hand down, he will crawl up it but not jump off. If I pinch him under the arm-pits, he will croak once for each pinch; if I throw him into water, he will swim until I touch his hands with a stick, when he will immediately stop.”

But then, as James succinctly points out, “Over a frog with an entire brain, the physiologist has no such power.”

Remember that old computer based Rogerian therapist, ELIZA?

We really love to provoke ourselves and thrust needles through our egos, constantly dancing about with the notion of God. Just look at the writing automaton built in 1772 by a Swiss clockmaker named Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son Henri-Louis. The Youtube videos are particularly nice, showing how remarkable the doll’s writing really is. I wish I could say that my handwriting is that beautiful! (You can even still buy watches of his design, instead of that new hybrid car you’ve had your eye on…)

If you look back far enough, we have always grappled with the idea of automata. “Daedalus of Crete was alleged to have built moving statues so agile that it was necessary to tie them down in order to prevent them from running away, and Pope Sylvester 11, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon were widely thought to have made marvellous talking heads from plans supplied by the devil.” (Alan Gauld from Could a Machine Perceive? published in 1966) The Golem, Galatea, Pygmalion, Rotwang’s Maria, and Frankenstein’s Monster all came to life in later years, extensions of this same philosophical thread. E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nathanael fell in love with Spalanzani’s piano-playing clockwork daughter Olympia, and madness was the result, for in the eighteenth century they learned to dress their ingenious works in wigs, feathers, skin, hair, clothes and anything else needed to simulate an appearance of life. Perhaps most incredibly, Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann from 1881 and partially based in the original Hoffman story Der Sandmann, required an actress to portray poor Olympia after she is wound too tight, and somehow convey an automata in a manner that is both inhuman and operating beyond its normal capacity; please, is it currently playing anywhere around Chicago? (And here’s an excellent online history of robots in the Victorian era)

Uploaded to Flickr on November 16, 2006 by denegro

As our cultural temperment became consumed with rationalism and scientific ideology, it coalesced famously into Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which you can view online or download in .pdf form in its entirety (I really like the fingers in the scan of page three; a little humanizing touch). James has this to say: “The consciousness of Mr. Darwin lays it down as axiomatic that self-preservation or survival is the essential or universal good for all living things. The mechanical processes of ‘spontaneous variation’ and ‘natural selection’ bring about this good by their combined action; but being physical processes they can in no sense be said to intend it. It merely floats off here and there accidentally as one of a thousand other physical results.”

So here we have the Deists as well, in part an extension of the Renaissance humanist tradition that I have read so extensively about as a future librarian with an interest in early books and manuscripts. For centuries we could thank Charlemagne during the Carolingian dynasty, and later individual monks and Abbeys for saving pagan, heretical works of philosophy from censorious political forces, as well as the capricious violence of Visigoths, Vandals and the like. Once printing presses were developed in the 16th century, however, the pressure to bear became intensified as the Papacy found their loss of power to reformationists, humanists and universites to be unacceptable. Basel, Switzerland became a hub of such printing efforts, by creating numerous Bibles printed in vernacular languages, and secular works written by nascent middle classes with more leisure time and a desire for reflection, philosophizing, and entertainment.

Deists believed in religion as a rational choice, abdicating centuries of revealed religion, or rather, religion as a divinely inspired system of revelatory miracles. Famous Diests such as Thomas Hobbes wanted to remove superstition and mystery from religion, while affirming the truth of God and the existence of a soul. God as a clockmaker who wound up the Universe and sat back to watch…certainly an incendiary proposal, still with much symbolic power if the enormous popularity of Sylar and the show Heroes is any barometer. (How many blogs and chat groups can there be about one TV show?)

Automata came to symbolize many of these fractious arguments, and it is in this shadowy realm that my interest lies. Many days I feel no more or less important than Vaucanson’s duck, and other days there is definitely a hyperactive homunculus imposing an artificial order upon my brain. But what of free will?

1. (Best written as two words.) Spontaneous will, unconstrained choice (to do or act). Often in phr. of one’s own free will, and the like. in one’s free will: left to or depending upon one’s choice or election. (from the Oxford English Dictionary)

I am dimly aware of the complex interplay implied in the nature vs nurture argument, and being alive is certainly more mysterious than it is apprehended by us. If humans are still seriously studying whether or not animals are conscious then I can confidently state that we are far from unquestionably knowing anything. Absolutism in any direction not only trivializes any argument, but also ignores inter- relationships. I can talk about the solidity of the table I’m leaning on, but its solidity is an seemingly an illusion of a chain of elemental relationships. Or how about glass? For many years people believed it to be a liquid, due to an observed change in thickness over time. Today, glass is by many accounts “an amorphous solid. A material is amorphous when it has no long-range order, that is, when there is no regularity in the arrangement of its molecular constituents on a scale larger than a few times the size of these groups.” (Doremus, R.H. Glass Science, 1994)

It’s not likely that we’re automata, nor are there concrete arguments that we are solely possessed of free will.   Arguments continue to range across ideological spectra, though for me it is difficult to separate out where science ends and spirituality begins; our motives are complex mirrors of our desire for constructive recognition outside of the noumenon. 

As Massimo Negrotti hypothesizes in his 2001 paper Designing the Artificial: An Interdisciplinary Study, “as a matter of fact, since the dawn of civilization, man shows a great, twofold constructive ambition: one, the Prometheus syndrome, aims at inventing objects and machines able to dominate the nature grasping its laws and adapting itself to them; the other, in turn, the Icarus syndrome, aims at reproducing natural objects or processes through alternate strategies,’ as compared to those nature follows.”

Just look at the work of Hiroshi Ishiguro if you want to be disturbed in the same fashion as 18th century automata gawkers. Prior to his doppelganger’s introduction, he introduced a female android.

There are actually quite a few android projects being developed worldwide, and it is worth following them. Bishop from the Alien series can’t be too far off, considering the enormous acceleration of technological development. I for one am dumb-founded every time I pick up my 1 gig flash drive. Wasn’t I playing games and programming basic on a 64 KB home computing platform barely 20 years ago? A few months ago I had to ask myself, how many gigabytes are there in a terabyte? Should I be Loving the Machine, and preparing myself for American companies hiring robot receptionists and valets? Or maybe not only hawking sex on street corners because humans are prohibited from doing so, but maybe offering it as well a la Jude Law as Gigolo Joe in Spielberg’s Kubrick mashup AI?

Robots are extremely old in concept, even if the word only dates from Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. in 1921. (Here is a good Timeline of Robotic, from approximately 3500b.c. to 1942, and from 1942 to 2005)  And people are using them in extremely disparate ways which fulfill needs, answer questions, and ultimately raise even more along the way.

(And of course there are several blogs devoted solely to the subject, a few of which I’ve already cited but here’s one more, for “Makers and Collectors of Mechanical Automata and Mechanical Toys.” Also, follow this link to one of the most thorough collections of links of Automata that I’ve come across.)

Sensation, pure consciousness, divine agency, freedom of will, responsive chemistry…

“Of course the materialist may still say that the emphasised attention obeys the strongest vibration and does not cause it, that we will what we do, not do what we will, -that, in short, interest is passive and at best a sign of strength of nerve-disturbance. But he is immediately confronted by the notorious fact that the strongest tendencies to automatic activity in the nerves often run most counter to the selective pressure of consciousness.
Every day of our lives we struggle to escape some tedious tune or odious thought which the momentary disposition of the brain keeps forcing upon us. And, to take more extreme cases, there are murderous tendencies to nervous discharge which, so far from involving by their intensity the assent of the will, cause their subjects voluntarily to repair to asylums to escape their dreaded tyranny. In all these cases of voluntas paradoxa or invita, the individual selects out of the two possible selves yielded by his cerebral powers one as the true Ego ; the other he regards as an enemy until at last the brain-storm becomes too strong for the helmsman’s power. But even in the depths of mania or of drunkenness the conscious man can steady himself and be rational for an instant if a sufficient motive be brought to bear. He is not dead, but sleepeth.”

The Robotic Librarian finally defers to William James, and invites any and all to join in the conversation.

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