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“Edison’s Eve” – by Gaby Wood

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During the 18th century, the inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck that appeared to digest and excrete its food.

A few decades later, Europeans fell in love with “the Turk,” a celebrated chess-playing machine built in 1769. Thomas Edison was obsessed for years with making a talking mechanical doll, one of his few failures as an inventor.

In this book, Gaby Wood, a feature writer for the Observer, traces the history of robotics, from its 18th-century roots in France to today’s MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where scientists have labored for decades, without success, to build a robot with emotions of its own. From the book:

    Sigmund Freud wrote of “the Uncanny,” the feeling that arises when there is an “intellectual uncertainty” about the borderline between the lifeless and the living. It is triggered in particular, Freud wrote, by “waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata.” A child’s desire for a doll to come to life may become, in adulthood, a fear.

    Albertus Magnus, a 13th-century Dominican monk, spent 30 years building an artificial man out of brass. He gave the android the power of speech, and made it his servant. Albertus’s student Thomas Aquinas became so furious at the brass man’s chatter that he beat it to pieces with a hammer.

    Although androids have no understanding of death, they are themselves embodiments of it. Every time an inventor tries to simulate life mechanically, he is in fact accentuating his own mortality. He holds his creation in his hands, and finds, where he expected life, only the lifeless; the closer he comes to attaining his goal, the more impossible it reveals itself to be.

    Rather than being copies of people, androids are more like mementi mori, reminders that, unlike us, they are forever unliving, and yet never dead. They throw the human condition into horrible relief.

    Exactly what is wanted of a machine? Is it supposed to be as close as possible to a human being, or to improve on that, and become superhuman? In the quest for mechanical perfection, does perfection mean infallibility (as in the computer), or innocence (as in the child)?

    All these questions, about memory and consciousness and emotions, about what makes us human, are “fuzzy.” Maybe we don’t yet know how to state the questions, in the same way that questions about the cosmos didn’t make much sense before astronomy.

    So we can play around with these questions, but they don’t make sense. When you push on the questions, they all break, in some funny way. Maybe we’re just too ignorant. We’re sitting here on this flat earth, contemplating the heavens above us – if we think we’re on a flat earth, we’re just not asking the right questions.

    Edison’s doll, now barely a footnote in biographies of the inventor, was in 1890 no small affair. He built a separate building, 40 X 210 feet, to be devoted exclusively to production of his talking doll. Two hundred and fifty people were involved in the production of each doll.

    The factory had a capacity to make 500 dolls a day – that is, over 100,000 dolls a year. The dolls were 22 inches long and weighed 4 pounds: they cost $10, more than the average worker’s weekly wage.

    The Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company turned out to be a failure. Though it is not known how many dolls sold, there are orders in the files for very few, perhaps 300. An inventory of the doll factory building at the end of 1890 showed 7,557 on hand. No more than a few exist today.

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