It was in the 12th century that the great brass head built by Albertus Magnus moved its mouth for the first time, breathing steam as it spoke to Magnus’ young religious acolyte, Thomas Aquinas. Though the talking head simply reported that the master was out, Aquinas reacted in mortal fear and, according to the legend, he smashed the oracle to pieces with a hammer. When his horrified master returned, the pupil begged forgiveness.
He was simply afraid, you see.
It’s a familiar feeling. As robotics technology advances with breathtaking speed, our society is feeling the same fear. But looking back at the world’s surprisingly long history with lifelike robots, we see that indulging in the timeless desire to build machines in our own image—and experiencing the resulting dread—has been instrumental in making our civilization possible.
You could say humanity faces its deepest fears by building them.
In the last two decades, artificial intelligence and robotics have surged into the popular consciousness, transformed our economy and encroached on skill sets we once considered uniquely human. Dozens of new robotics startups are funded every month, and practical applications are reaching into our lives in the form of autonomous vehicles, drones and personal assistants who live in our devices. The machines are literally beating us at our own games, including chess, Jeopardy!, and even the ancient, nearly computationally intractable game of Go. And since we consider intelligence to be the hallmark of humanity, this fight is getting personal.
In response, scientists and titans of industry have spoken out about the danger of robots, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, with Musk calling artificial intelligence “a fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.” The Future of Life Institute has also warned of an existential threat posed by the rise of the machines and outlined steps to protect humanity. And the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee recently approved a report that warns against the rising influence of robots, calling for EU-wide ethical standards to protect human citizens. The report stresses: “to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework.”
All of these voices are screaming that the robots are coming and we had all better watch out. Mass unemployment. Domination of the human race. Glowing red eyes.
Let’s stop and take a deep breath.
We have felt this fear before. Our history with robots goes back centuries, and this uncanny dread has always been part of that complicated relationship.
The word automaton means “self-mover” in ancient Greek, and the term is often used to describe a class of primitive robots invented all around the world from antiquity to the early 1900s. Based on the history books, it seems that almost as long as there have been people, there have been enterprising thinkers seeking to replicate our abilities in machine form.
These bygone scientists and their robotic achievements stretch back into the myth and legend of pre-history, records of their triumphs captured on papyrus, clay tablets and even inscribed on oracle bones in ancient China. These artifacts were built in a time before systematic scientific thinking, when the world was mysterious and magical, ruled by gods and supernatural forces, with maps uncharted and monsters still roaming.
Ancient myths abound, even if they cannot be proven. The Lieh Tzu text, written in the 3rd century BC, describes Yen Shih the artificer, who created a walking, singing automaton and presented it to King Mu of the Chinese Zhou dynasty around 1000 B.C. When the machine winked at an attending lady, the king was so incensed that Yen Shih was said to have taken the machine apart to demonstrate its artificial nature before the king could order an execution. After a trip to Constantinople in 968, the bishop Liudprand of Cremona described a bronze tree sprouting automatons such as roaring lions and chirping birds. In the 1200s, legend has it that Albertus Magnus’s talking oracular head was destroyed by his student (and eventual Saint) Thomas Aquinas. Following the rediscovery of Hero’s treatise Pneumatica, engineers in the 16th century were said to have built artificial caves and grottos teeming with moving, water-powered automata that were reported to fly, swim and walk.
But mythological accounts solidify into fact around the 16th century, when existing artifacts begin to turn up, such as a clockwork monk built in Southern Europe in the 1560s that walks and prays (at the Smithsonian) or a variety of karakuri tea-serving robots common to the early Edo period of Japan (1603 to 1868).
The response to these kind of automatons was typically wonder, followed by suspicion. At the time, the automaton was thought of as the product of “natural magic,” or the manipulation of occult forces. Complex machinery, especially that which mimicked living creatures, invoked an assumption of magical forces at work—the influence of angels or demons. As a result, automata were often reviled as the product of demonic or necromantic arts, arousing God’s wrath by duplicating His work, and feared.
Thanks partially to centuries of building lifelike machines and examining the mechanics of people and animals, humankind reached a seminal moment in history, when demons were exorcised from science and we began to truly undertake a scientific revolution. Pondering the inner workings of both popular and ancient reports of automata, rationalistic thinkers began to reject the magical explanations of the medieval age and embrace the scientific method. Natural philosophers like Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz and Robert Boyle saw a new universe that followed complex but consistent rules.
They saw a world of machines, like ours.
By the mid-1700s, engineers like the French scientist Jacques de Vaucanson had begun building incredible automatons whose remains still exist today. His three major works, two musician figures and a lifelike duck, were displayed in Paris for decades to thousands of paying customers. Vaucanson’s menagerie sparked an automaton craze that lasted for the rest of the century and inspired great minds of the time.
Once a symbol of wonder and terror, the automaton had transformed into a living example of a mechanistic universe. This fundamental shift in worldview, forged in fear and quelled by scientific thought, enabled the rapid technological progress that has shaped the world we live in. The fruition of this new mode of thought arrived in the form of the Industrial Revolution—with massive improvements in transportation, manufacturing and agriculture that would change billions of lives.
Today, we’re in the midst of another era of rapid change.
Thanks to an onslaught of modern-day automatons—from robot arms toiling in factories to face recognition algorithms that tag our photos online—politicians worldwide are now discussing the creation of guidelines to codify ethical interactions between man and machine. Scientists and philosophers are debating what it will mean when the robots can reproduce every human ability: physical, artistic and scientific.
Seen as a war between man and machine, we are clearly losing.
But history demonstrates that every perceived loss we suffer carries us closer to the truth of what makes us unique. Each new advance for the robots adds to our understanding of ourselves. The mechanical functioning of lifelike machines helped medieval scientists conceptualize the workings of the human body. And today advances in myriad areas of science, such as speech recognition, computer vision, and natural language processing help us better grasp the inner workings of the human mind.
Docendo discimus—we learn by teaching—and our long history of teaching machines human tricks, and fearsome as they may seem at first, has been a centuries-old voyage of self exploration. Why stop now?