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.
"Behind Deep Blue" is, alas, a dull book in which the Taiwanese leader of the team that devised the winning program describes his quest in mind-numbing, narcissistic detail. The truth is that Kasparov's defeat proved little more than a seven-day wonder. Nowadays almost everyone accepts that a computer programmed to win at chess poses no more threat to human intellect than a pocket calculator: Witness the extraordinary lack of public interest in this fall's million-dollar match between the world champion Vladimir Kramnik and the most highly rated chess computer, Deep Fritz 7, which ended in a 4 to 4 tie on October 19.
Matters were different in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With his definition of the cogito, Descartes had proved to many seventeenth-century savants that thinking is the essence of what it means to be human. The human being as a "thinking thing" stands distinct from the "mechanical matter" that constitutes everything else in the world. Even animals, lacking the capacity to think the cogito, must be merely machine-like material beings.
In 1747 Julien Offray de la Mettrie, an atheistical follower of Descartes, took the next step and openly proposed the "man-machine": Men and their brains comprised no more than a highly complex system of biological cogs and wheels and camshafts. When the Turk appeared in 1770, commentators agonized over its mechanistic challenge to a god-given cogito, whether construed as soul or mind. Mightn't the Turk, indeed, prove La Mettrie's premise?
AND YET, most of those who emptied their pockets in order to watch robotic chess were there for the best show in town. Skeptics in those days--like skeptics in our own--mocked the charlatans (and their gulls) whose swindles made nonsense of claims about "The Enlightenment" and "The Age of Reason." But it was an era when even serious science--air-pumps, Franklin's electrical gizmos, chemical experiments--was often presented as a carnival show or parlor game.
The sheer mileage of the Turk's career suggests there was more to him than met religious, skeptical, and scientifically curious eyes. In his essay on "The Uncanny," Sigmund Freud dwells on the psychological disturbance provoked by automata, dolls, and puppets. Buried in the usual psychiatric mumbo jumbo are Freud's typically brilliant insights, here into our love-hate relations with such figures. Almost lifelike, these uncanny doppelgängers challenge our humanity, but we are often driven, particularly as children, to own or to watch them. Are we still, in our adult nightmares, no more than mechanical puppets who can be dismembered? Can puppets or dolls come alive to threaten or kill us?
If the Turk lacked the ferocity of the Punch and Judy show--also in its heyday during the eighteenth century--it spoke to more intellectual fears about human identity and its loss. Most clockwork automata were scarily hyperactive. On suspicion of demonic possession, the Spanish Inquisition briefly imprisoned Pierre Jacquet-Droz and one of the family's mechanoid toddlers.
By contrast, the impassive Turk was eerily ratiocinative, limiting itself to the single sound of "check" (in whatever language was demanded by the countries where he played). Of all automata the Turk was the uncanniest.
A SPATE OF NEW BOOKS addresses eighteenth-century automata, ventriloquists' dummies, and puppets--together with more recent avatars of chess computers, artificial intelligence, androids, robots, and cyborgs. Does "computerization" challenge human identity as ominously as "mechanization" previously seemed to?
In "Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life," Gaby Wood takes us from eighteenth-century road shows (including an excellent chapter on the Turk) to workshops on robotics at MIT and at Waseda University in Tokyo. She invokes Freud's notion of the Uncanny and, for good measure, throws in chapters on Edison's invention of a speaking doll that he was unable to market, the magical films of the innovative French movie director Georges Méliès (who ended his life selling cheap toys in a Paris railway station), and a mini-history of the Dolls, a family of German midgets who performed at Coney Island and whose last surviving member she tracks down in Sarasota.
Wood points out that the word "android" was actually coined during the eighteenth century. Philip K. Dick's usage of it in his classic sci-fi novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (1968) will probably be more familiar. And "Rick Deckard," the name of the novel's hero, will also remind sharp-eared readers of "René Descartes." Within a few years of Dick's resurrection of "android," however, the word had become so familiar that it was changed to "replicant" in "Blade Runner," Ridley Scott's 1982 cult movie version of Dick's novel. One replicant in the film declaims "Cogito ergo sum" amidst a room jam-packed with eighteenth-century style automata. "More human than human is our motto," explains the mad scientist who runs the interplanetary corporation designing these masterpieces of artificial intelligence.
SO, DOES ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE transcend Freudian nightmare now that it has come to suggest not itinerant showmen or tinkerers with clockwork but university scientists, computer moguls, and global corporations? Or does a scientist with an uncanny puppet always remain mad or charlatanical? According to Victoria Nelson in her goofy "The Secret Life of Puppets," the turn of our new millennium has witnessed the wonderful reemergence of a "sub-zeitgeist." Nelson reminds us that "rotating statues, singing mechanical birds, and automated miniature puppet theaters" enlivened pagan temples and even some Christian churches. In the fourth century A.D., esoteric philosophers struck an ideal balance of "divinized humanity"--Nelson's original "sub-zeitgeist"--among people, statues, and the world. Organized religion and the mechanization of the world picture took their toll, but modern technology now promises a New Age return to ancient wisdom. Nelson enjoys making an autodidact's case not only from arcane lore but from movies like "The Truman Show" and "The Matrix."
What Nelson's "secret life of puppets" entails will escape most readers--including this one--but our own era certainly seems eager to make the kind of connections that Wood limns between the handiwork of eighteenth-century mechanicians and the android simulacra that twenty-first-century proponents of artificial intelligence have unleashed. A learned and gorgeously illustrated anthology of the many permutations of these themes may be found in Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak's "Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen."
THE FLOW OF BOOKS on this and related topics seems almost endless. In 2000, the photographer Peter Menzel and the journalist Faith D'Aluisio put together a volume called "Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species," a sort of Life magazine tour of recent attempts at robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. Now Joanna Zyminska gathers academic essays for "The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age." In "Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us," Rodney Brooks, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, dashes from Vaucanson's eighteenth-century Parisian duck to "Kismet," his own computerized mechanical head--with "large blue eyeballs, eyelids made of silver foil, bits of carpet for brows, twists of pink paper for ears, and red rubber tubing to make a mouth"--that is, Brooks claims, the word's first "sociable" robot, interacting "with people on an equal basis." (Both Brooks and his "cartoonish, mechanical gremlin" are discussed by Gaby Wood in the introduction to "Edison's Eve.") Meanwhile in "Building Bots," William Gurstelle gives instructions on how to build your own little fighter in the garage for "combat robotics."
The peak of all this may be the moment at which the inventor Ray Kurzweil asks, "As Machines become more like People, will People become more like God?" The infectiously enthusiastic Kurzweil is the leading proponent of "Strong A.I.," a brave new world in which a "Non-invasive Surgery-Free Reversible Programmable Distributed Brain Implant" will soon become available. In the keynote essay in "Are We Spiritual Machines?" Kurzweil imagines nanobots--hyper-intelligent miniaturized robots--zipping around our brains and downloading our mental software onto new hard drives which will somehow become re-embodied as us. Immortality looms, if "we are sufficiently careful to make frequent back-ups." Kurzweil microwaves Victoria Nelson's New Age slop about "divinized humanity."
It's certainly true that people are increasingly becoming cyborgs--part man, part machine--as they acquire artificial hips, pacemakers, and even computer chips in the brain. And in "I, Cyborg," Kevin Warwick issues a wacky manifesto for those who aspire to become A.I. machines. But "Are We Spiritual Machines?" matches Kurzweil against various critics, from thoughtful anti-Darwinists to leading materialist philosophers such as John Searle--all of whom agree that "Strong A.I." is a chimera. There's something that feels slightly dated--1950s science-fictiony, like Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot"--about the dream of computers coming alive. Certainly much more immediately pressing concerns seem to be coming out of cloning and other parts of the Brave New World of eugenic biotechnology. In such books as "Disclosure," "Rising Sun," and "Jurassic Park," the enormously popular fiction writer Michael Crichton has always been a remarkable predictor of the next topic around which public fears will crystallize, but his latest thriller, "Prey," which constructs a nightmare out of nanotechnology, seems to have missed the public mood and is not doing as well as Crichton novels are expected to do.
STILL, THE ENLIGHTENMENT FASCINATION with automata survives. In "The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine," Tom Standage proffers the unvarnished history of an earlier era's most famous android. The Turk was built in 1770 for Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, after Kempelen had been irritated at court by the self-congratulations of a visiting French conjuror. Kempelen also designed waterworks and mining pumps as well as a typewriter for the blind and a machine for simulating the human voice. The Turk's next owner, Maelzel, designed automata, human prostheses, and a gigantic music box called the Panharmonicon. Purveyor of ear-trumpets to Beethoven, Maelzel unsuccessfully negotiated to have the composer's "Wellington's Victory" performed on the Panharmonicon. With the Turk as centerpiece of an elaborate roadshow, however, Maelzel achieved international fame.
The Turk made both Kempelen and Maelzel rich, but Maelzel (who passed off the android as his own invention) ended up fleeing Europe. Among the lawsuits he left behind was one from Napoleon's family, which had bought the Turk from him and unwisely lent it back. The Turk's transatlantic prestige waned--if not so quickly as Deep Blue's--when its uniqueness was challenged by rival automata like the American Chess Player and the Automatic Whist Player.
After Maelzel died destitute in 1838, the Turk was found dispersed among crates in Philadelphia. Purchased and rebuilt by a local physician, the automaton was donated to the museum of Charles Willson Peale--the great American portrait painter who also ran an upmarket freak show--where the Turk was eventually destroyed by a fire that engulfed the establishment. In fact, few eighteenth-century auto-mata have survived intact. Today, only the mechanoid toddlers of the Jacquet-Droz family perform on Cartesian cue in Switzerland, the country that invented the cuckoo clock. Cuckoo ergo sum.
Standage tries to stick to the facts about the Turk (which are fantastical enough), but he also has to cope with the mythology that quickly accrued around the robot, not least the fictitious games against Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great. Such melodrama, Standage recognizes, boosted the Turk's notoriety and thus comprised a legitimate (if untrue) part of its career. Cleverly, Standage postpones an explanation of the hoax until well into his short but absorbing book.
FROM ITS FIRST APPEARANCES on the public stage, the Turk provoked suspicion. Skeptics could understand the principles of clockwork automata but could not accept the Turk's primitive simulation of intelligence. Did its owners control its moves with puppet wires or magnets?
Most serious commentators, however, agreed that the Turk was controlled from inside the box on which he played. Because of the box's limited dimensions, a monkey, dwarf, child, or legless man were proposed as the Turk's animators. In fact, the cleverly constructed box concealed a full-sized human who was often a chess master.
The best explanation was printed in 1821 by Robert Willis, grandson of George III's most famous "mad-doctor" and future professor of applied mechanics at Cambridge. Surreptitiously, the nineteen-year-old Willis measured the box with his umbrella during one of the Turk's exhibition games in London and then made the requisite calculations. With some refinements, Standage endorses Willis's commentary (and engravings), which he judges superior to Poe's 1836 "Maelzel's Chess Player."
Inside the box Kempelen had constructed a compartment to hide a human chess player while the showman opened doors to dupe audiences with glimpses of phony, fold-up mechanical paraphernalia. Casters allowed the showman to swivel the box convincingly. Only the sepulchral voice and the pantography that allowed the operator control of the Turk's playing arm were genuine clockwork. A system of magnetic devices under the chessboard allowed the operator to follow play, which he (or occasionally she) replicated underneath on a miniature board illuminated by a candle. A candelabrum resting on the box concealed the smell of burning wax within. Sneezes or coughs could be drowned out by the showman's fiddling with levers connected to fake internal machinery. Games were played fast to ease the operator's cramped position.
The most remarkable fact about the Turk's career is that Kempelen and Maelzel each orchestrated, on two continents, a successful conspiracy of superb players, journalists, and even a Columbia University professor, all of whom took turns in the android's cramped box. Only in 1834 did Jacques-François Mouret, an alcoholic chess master, squeal to a Parisian tabloid for the price of a drink. News crossed the Atlantic, and after Maelzel's death a version of Mouret's confessions in the National Gazette was found among his effects. By then, it was yesterday's news.
"However great and surprising the powers of mechanism may be," declared Robert Willis in his exposé of the Turk, "the movements which spring from it are necessarily limited and uniform. It cannot usurp and exercise the faculties of mind." The computer revolution and Deep Blue have redrawn our notion of "the powers of mechanism," although we are still debating the faculties of mind (or brain). Standage contrasts the swindle of a human chess player inside a box with the beginnings of machine intelligence in Charles Babbage's early nineteenth-century designs for an "Analytical Engine" and with its triumph in Deep Blue. He also notes how Vaucanson switched his attention from clockwork automata to the use of cards in order to program weaving looms. Behind the eighteenth and early nineteenth century's fascination with automata, Standage discerns the makings not only of the industrial revolution but also of information technology.
IN "Edison's Eve," Gaby Wood begins her discussion of Descartes by repeating the famous anecdote about the life-size clockwork puppet that the Frenchman made of his dead daughter Francine. This deluxe humanoid was discovered, during a storm, by sailors on the ship that was carrying the philosopher to his new job (and final resting place) with Queen Christina of Sweden. Over the side went the ghostly machine, and the ship was saved from the storm that Francine's black magic had provoked.
The problem with this anecdote is that it is completely untrue. Wood fails to emphasize that innovative scientists from Pythagoras to Edward Teller have frequently attracted whiffs of Dr. Frankenstein. The myth of Francine shows how something uncanny swirled even around the reputation of Descartes, the arch-rationalist.
In "Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism," Steven Connor tackles a seemingly limited topic, but he incisively transforms it into a meditation on what it means to be human, ranging from Delphi and the Witch of Endor through early modern witch-hunts and Kempelen's talking automaton, and down to Edgar Bergen and Charlie MacCarthy. Connor recalls how, in 1995, a toddler was butchered by two ten-year-olds in Liverpool. As consumers of "video nasties" like "Child's Play," the lads imagined they were killing the demonic doll Chucky, whom the unfortunate toddler resembled.
The sober chess-playing Turk represented the Uncanny for grown-ups, but an endless series of B-movies about evil puppets, largely pitched at children and teens, reveals how the Uncanny remains part of our collective unconscious. And how different, finally, are Kurzweil's nanobots from Chucky? The controversies created by La Mettrie's "Man, A Machine" demonstrate the extent to which eighteenth-century automata raised questions about our relations with God. But the myth of Descartes's clockwork puppet daughter reveals that uncanny automata also raised questions about our relations with the Devil.
Somehow, people who discuss "Strong A.I."--together with the cyborging of human beings and the nanobotic downloading of human consciousness--imagine the alternatives are either a glorious future or a simple failure. There remains, however, another possibility: initial success at the dream of mechanical life, which then becomes a nightmare. Freud was right. There is something genuinely uncanny about puppets, automata, and ventriloquists' dummies--and that uncanniness remains in androids, robots, nanobots, and cyborgs. The Devil always finds a way to nix our dreams of perfect life.
Hugh Ormsby-Lennon teaches eighteenth-century literature at Villanova University.