The Magazine

The Dream of Mechanical Life

Man and automata.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By HUGH ORMSBY-LENNON
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Flesh and Machines
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Parthenon, 260 pp., $26

Prey
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Dumbstruck
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Building Bots
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Behind Deep Blue
Building the Computer that Defeated the
World Chess Champion
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Are We Spiritual Machines?
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Robo Sapiens
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The Secret Life of Puppets
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Devices of Wonder
From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen
by Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak,
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The Turk
The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine
by Tom Standage
Walker & Co., 224 pp., $24

I, Cyborg
by Kevin Warwick
Century, 318 pp., 16.99

Edison's Eve
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by Gaby Wood
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The Cyborg Experiments
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edited by Joanna Zyminska
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FROM 1770 TO 1838, a mysterious automaton astounded well-paying European and American audiences with chess-playing feats. Tricked out in a turban and flowing oriental robes, it was called the "Turk," and it vanquished many of the era's chess masters in swiftly played games. Famous adversaries included Napoleon (a poor player and a sore loser) and Benjamin Franklin. The Turk made its lucrative way from the Hapsburg court to pre-revolutionary Paris, from George III's London to New York and Havana. In its later years, the Turk even encountered the young P.T. Barnum, who learned some valuable lessons in publicity, and the young Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote the most famous of the many essays that endeavored to expose how the hoax worked.

Why did so many people pay so much money to see a supposed machine playing chess? The eighteenth century was the golden age of fascination with automata. Between 1738 and 1741, Jacques de Vaucanson thrilled Paris with a clockwork duck, flutist, and pipe player. These were remarkable contraptions. The first seemed genuinely to excrete after being fed, while the second breathed faster and the third played faster than any human. Some automata actually talked, although Goethe remarked that Wolfgang von Kempelen's robot was "not very loquacious," even if it could "pronounce childish words nicely." During the 1770s the Jacquet-Droz family exhibited a lady harpsichordist and two mechanoid toddlers that scribbled such sentiments as "cogito ergo sum"--a nice play on Descartes's proof for the existence of human consciousness. A clever but crooked engineer named Johann Nepomuk Maelzel toured with a mechanical trumpeter.

All of these creations, however, were evidently clockwork--and their exhibitions always included displays of the robotic innards after the audience's wonder had abated. The Turk was different. Neither Kempelen (who constructed the Turk in 1770) nor Maelzel (who bought the Turk from Kempelen's son in 1804) publicly demonstrated the full inner workings of the Turk. Indeed the two men acted instead as consummate showmen when supervising the Turk--preferring to let audiences imagine that their prodigy had outstripped the powers of human cognition embodied in those he played against.

There is no doubt that the Turk was a hoax, although collectors of eighteenth-century clockwork (and scholars of Poe) still argue about just how a human could fit inside the figure to manipulate its mechanical limbs. But the Turk's popularity derived from its challenge to the widespread belief that the human intellect could not be simulated by a machine, particularly in a game whose complexity seemed to exceed the prescient craft of any toy designer. For Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess master who lost to IBM's computer Deep Blue in 1997, some of the same challenges were on the line. In "Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer that Defeated the World Chess Champion," Feng-Hsiung Hsu insists the computerized victory represents "the achievement of the holy grail" to which machine builders had aspired since Kempelen.