I, Robot

I, Robot
A Brief History Of Artificial Life

Jim Rossignol | 27 Oct 2009 12:51
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This philosophy inspired inventors to bring their automata ever closer to the notion of artificial life. Perhaps the most famous creator of automata was French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson, who became interested in automata after meeting a French surgeon. His first project at age 18 was to create a system of "androids" to clear the tables of wealthy diners, but his workshop was destroyed by local officials who considered his work to be sacrilegious. Ten years later, Vaucanson created the Flute Player, a remarkable flute-playing figure with a repertoire of 12 songs. The Duke of Luynes, a contemporary chronicler, reported: "What makes this machine singular is the fact that the sounds are more or less loud, and that any other flute can replace the one which is being played. ... Air really blows out through the mouth, and the fingers actually play. The fingers are carved in wood with a piece of leather at the point where they cover the holes."

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Even more famously, Vaucanson created a duck which appeared to eat and then defecate. Although the digestion was actually an illusion, many people considered the creature his masterpiece, given its astonishingly lifelike behavior. Its resemblance to a biological duck was the most significant aspect of Vaucanson's achievement, making it something akin to a magic trick; the onlookers who cooed and wowed at his work wanted to be fooled. And it was easily done: We are predisposed to behave towards something that appears to be alive as if it really is alive. The mere fact that the duck seemed lifelike was enough to grant Vaucanson fame centuries after his death.

The saga of the automaton has continued well into modern times, of course, with the 20th-century inventor's workshops being littered with attempts at lifelike androids. The most impressive of these is probably Elektro, a humanoid metal robot built by Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1938. Elektro could walk, smoke cigarettes, speak 700 words via an internal record player and even inflate balloons. His photo-electric eyes could distinguish between red and green, wowing audiences. Elektro was such a marvel of android engineering that he eventually went on tour in 1950, acting as a promotional show for Westinghouse. Although little more than a highly sophisticated animatronic routine, Elektro stunned onlookers and convinced many of the possibilities of the robotic future we were promised by 1950s futurologists.

All this should sound familiar to gamers, because automata are no longer limited to the wealthy elite. Contemporary society has access to a technology that would have been unimaginable to people of earlier centuries: the video screen. Today, on-screen automata are more likely to wow audiences with their lifelike behavior than any physical product from an inventor's laboratory. Screens, after all, are ubiquitous. They allow automata to be brought cheaply into our own homes. It seems that artificial life has finally been democratized and sold to the masses.

You need only look at this year's Microsoft E3 press conference for evidence: The centerpiece of their Project Natal demonstration was an on-screen boy named Milo who responded to the player's behavior and movements. The parallels with Elektro are startling. In this demonstration, we were charmed by the same tricks that automata makers have been using for centuries to impress and entertain their patrons. It is the illusion of life that is vital to the effectiveness of both Milo and Vaucanson's duck. What mattered in both cases was our propensity to respond to these things with awe and surprise because they are simultaneously manmade and lifelike. Human beings are, after all, intrigued by technology and beguiled by nature. We also love a magic trick. We, the hapless Fox Mulders of consumerism, want to believe.

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