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.

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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.

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.

Game designers have arguably been cashing in on this “automata effect” for years. As soon as gaming devices were able to display models with more fidelity than basic abstract shapes, we began to get artificial people. It’s no mistake that Will Wright’s greatest success lay in the lifelike models of The Sims. Valve, meanwhile, knew exactly what they were doing when they created Alyx Vance for the Half-Life 2 games. She was the logical extension of in-game non-player characters from previous decades – the automata of the videogame age. She was more than simply another moving target; instead, she pretended to be alive for your ongoing delight. Although we understand that she’s not sentient in any sense, we nevertheless respond and react to her with a suspension of disbelief that few other game entities evoke. The nuances of interaction, such as her covering her eyes when you shine a flashlight in her face, are what make the illusion beguiling.

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But this isn’t artificial intelligence. Instead, these systems mimic nature without ever really attempting to match its complexity. This is precisely what the early automata makers were exploring: They were creating illusions. The monk in the Holy Roman Emperor’s court was only just complex enough to amuse the Emperor, and the same is true of game characters and gamers today.

Of course, the processing power of computers dwarfs the pneumatics and clockwork of previous centuries, allowing our inventors to create lifelike systems and examine unusual avenues that were inaccessible to those of earlier generations. The bizarre Seaman games on Dreamcast and PS2 took a rather different approach by creating a system that responded to our voice inputs. This gave the impression of a real artificial intelligence behind the screen – a scene reminiscent of Elektro responding to his handler’s commands. However canned the responses were, it was intriguing to be able to observe the behavior of something that seemed autonomous, albeit only in a limited sense.

What neither automata nor videogame characters have ever been able to do, however, is fool us into thinking that they really are alive. Perhaps that’s where the fascination lies: in the realization that they are indeed artifice. The sense of wonder that has arisen from automata across the centuries comes from pushing the boundaries of technology, from measuring our knowledge and creativity against the high benchmark of nature and watching the former inch ever closer to the latter. This could, one day, come to an end. When the virtual and the actual are indistinguishable and the person talking back to you from the screen might as well be real, will that sense of wonder be lost?

Perhaps, and that’s when the history of automata will come to an end.

Jim Rossignol is an editor at RockPaperShotgun.com and the author of This Gaming Life, an account of the life of modern videogames and some of the people who play them.

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