I, Robot

I, Robot
A Brief History Of Artificial Life

Jim Rossignol | 27 Oct 2009 12:51
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A mechanical monk in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1560: a miraculous construction of clockwork, carved wood and lacquer. A videogame NPC on your screen in 2009: a mathematical mannequin of bits and bytes. These two distant constructs are more similar than you might think.


The automaton, the manmade approximation of a living creature, is almost as old as civilization itself. "Self-operating systems" have been recorded as far back as Ancient Greek times, and have popped up, whirring and clicking, ever since. On the isle of Rhodes, which historians believe may have been the source of the earliest computational pocket gadget ever discovered, the Antikythera mechanism, there were said to be "animated figures" on every public street. In third-century China, engineers and inventors presented mechanical animals to kings as presents. Eighth-century Baghdad, meanwhile, was furnished with mechanical birds that sang and flapped their wings, while its alchemists researched the secrets of creating mechanical life forms in laboratories across the city.

These early automata may challenge our ideas of the linear nature of technological progress, but artificial imitations of life really were invented and reinvented countless times across the centuries. A primary purpose of technology, it seems, often ends up being the creation of these fascinating simulacra - things that look lifelike, but are far from alive.

Historically, automata are bound to the entertainment industry. The 13th-century Persian scholar Al-Jazari, for example, was famed for creating an automated band which he built into a boat. The humanoid players aboard the boat performed complex movements and played a number of instruments to amuse onlookers. Al-Jazari and many other Islamic inventors created a panoply of devices intended to imitate life and enrich the lives of their wealthy owners.

Most famous, perhaps, were Leonardo da Vinci's plans for a self-propeled cart, a robotic lion and a human robot built from a suit of medieval armor, all of which were recently rebuilt by Italian engineers. The blueprints for these devices were drawn up in the 1490s, likely commissioned by decadently wealthy merchants and nobles living in Renaissance Italy. It's unclear if they were ever constructed in Leonardo's lifetime, but if they had been, we can be sure these curiosities would have made their florins back through entertaining the cultural elite.

The centuries during and immediately after the Renaissance were a golden era for automata - quite literally in some cases, as the machines were often constructed by goldsmiths and clockmakers, usually as elaborate decorations for wealthy homes and gardens throughout Europe. This increased interest wasn't simply about wealth and a proliferation of engineering knowledge, however; it was also marked by a philosophical shift. Life began to be understood in mechanistic rather than spiritual terms. Philosophers argued that animals were little more than highly complex machines, and they drew parallels between skeletons and blood vessels and the frames and pneumatics inventors used to create automata.

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