Course Handout - A Brief History of
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First published [v1.0]
dated 08:30 BST 10th June 2003. This version [2.0 -
copyright] 09:00 BST 8th July 2018.
Although this paper is
reasonably self-contained, it is best read as a subordinate file to Part 4 of
our seven-part review of how successfully the psychological study of
biological short-term memory (STM) has incorporated the full range of
concepts and metaphors available to it from the computing industry. To go
directly to the superordinate content file, click here, to go to the superordinate menu file, click here, and to see the author's homepage, click here.
The modern robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) industries use technology
which is typically less than a hundred years old, and yet what they are trying
to achieve cannot properly be understood without delving much more deeply into
history. Two thousand years ago, for example, automata were reputedly already
capable of rudimentary synthetic sound, and legends of metal men and statues
coming to life can be found in the works of Homer, Plato, Pindar, Tacitus, and
Pliny. This field has already been repeatedly reviewed by authors such as Cohen
(1966), Ash (1977), Aleksander and Burnett (1983),
Pratt (1987), Mazlish (1993), Lindsay (1997),
Franklin (2000), and Wood (2002), and here are some of the key points again:
- Artificial Life: For
the ancient Israelites, the first man was made by Jehovah using "the
dust of the ground", whilst for the Greeks
he was fashioned by Prometheus and Athena out of clay. This is a similar
tale to that of the golem, an obscure Semitic
myth from Old Testament times, which resurfaced in 16th century Prague
when Rabbi Low reputedly created a 9-foot tall golem to protect the Jewish
community from harassment. Unfortunately, the creatures in such legends
were not always friendly, prompting cautionary tales such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein - A Modern
- Living Statues: Ash
(1977) dates the concept of the living statue to the classical Greek
myths, specifically to Talos, a metal man
built for King Minos to help defend the shores of Crete against invasion.
The myth of Pygmalion is also worth noting, for it tells of a confirmed
misogynist who sculpted his ideal woman in marble and then promptly fell
in love with her (luckily for him, the Gods smiled on his dilemma and
brought the statue to life as Galatea, and they lived happily ever after).
The idea of loving that which we ourselves have painstakingly sculpted (be
that literally or figuratively) was replayed in modern times by Henry
Higgins and Eliza Dolittle in George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion"
(1916), and (given a happy ending) in the musical/film
"My Fair Lady" (1956/1964). The story is played out for children
in such works as Carlo Collodi's
- Talking Heads:
Talking heads were either statuary busts or mummified skulls, and were
reputed to utter prophecies (presumably by voice tube or ventriloquism),
or to nod or shake their heads when questioned (presumably being worked
surreptitiously like puppets). Heyl (1964/2003 online)
assures us that both the head of the Jackal God and the bust of Re-Harmakhis have hidden speaking tubes leading to their
mouths, and Spence (1915) adds that "every roguery of priestcraft" was practised in Egyptian temples.
More impressive still must have been the Colossi of Memnon, a pair of
18-metre high statues guarding the approaches to the Mortuary Temple of
the Pharaoh Amenhetep III at Thebes [picture]. They were erected in
the mid 14th century BCE, and during an
earthquake in 27CE the northern statue was damaged in such a way that its
structure started to "sing" with the dawning of each new day.
This went on for over 200 years, and, being one of the marvels of the
world, attracted many influential visitors, including the Emperor Hadrian
in 130CE. The phenomenon ceased abruptly when masons eventually effected repairs to the structure. One theory is that
Hero of Alexandria (see next) conspired with the temple priests to install
yet another voice tube, and Hippolytus's "The Refutation of All
Heresies" mentions the use of "the windpipe of a crane or some
such long-necked animal" in such deceptions [source].
- Automata: Hero (sometimes Heron) of Alexandria (dates
uncertain, but around mid-first century CE) was an accomplished Greek
engineer who made many automata - articulated and internally complex
models - discretely powered by water, gravity, air, or steam, and capable
of simple movements and sounds, and with these he entertained and
astounded those who could afford his services. During the European Dark
Ages, this sort of knowledge was kept alive in the Arab world, reappearing
a thousand years later in such works as Al Jaziri's
"The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" (ca.
1206), and then re-entering an increasingly curious Christian world as
alchemy (see next). Automata have also appeared in literature, and the
idea of falling in love with a machine was explored in Ernst Hoffman's
gothic short story "Der Sandman" (1817) in which the love object
is the android Olympia [picture], in Delibes' ballet
"Coppelia" (1870) where it is the
eponymous dancing doll [picture], and in countless
recent science fiction novels.
- Alchemists and Androids:
modern university movement began with the establishment of universities at
Bologna (1088), Salamanca (1218), Padua (1222), Oxford (1249), and
Cambridge (1284). The curricula at these new institutions was initially
theology and philosophy, but gradually grew more secular as monks and
scholars began to study the Middle Eastern texts to find out what they had
been missing out on during the Dark Ages. This led to them adopting the
Arabic name al-kimia - anglicised as alchemy
- to describe the practical study of the forces of nature, and two of the
alchemists' favourite topics were the creation of gold and the mystery of
(eternal) life. The key to the former was the Philosopher's Stone, and the
key to the latter was twofold, firstly the search for the Elixir of Life
and secondly the study of automata. In fact, the Middle Ages recognised no
boundary between what we would today call science and what we would today
call sorcery, and nowhere is the ambivalence better seen than in the
Dominican Friar Albertus Magnus, world authority in his time on such
sciences as physics, astronomy, and biology. Tutor of the young Thomas
Aquinas in 1243, Albertus became Regent of Studies of the Dominican Order
in Cologne in 1248, and during the next 30 years wrote books on just about
every subject under the sun. He also spent his spare time building a
speaking automaton. Unfortunately, there are light and dark reports of
everything Albertus did, and not least of the story of his automaton. On
the one hand, we have the orthodox Catholic Encyclopaedia version
of the tale, which tells how Albertus built only a relatively innocent
animated doll, capable of artificial phonation; not much more than a
clever musical instrument, in other words, and an entirely harmless amusement.
On the other hand, there is a darker version of the story, in which he
communed with "angels from the underworld" and used
"materials unknown to this world" to build a speaking, thinking,
android, complete with a soul. Even the name of the mysterious automaton
changes from account to account, being Barbiton
in some and Android in others. However, both versions of the story
more or less agree that Aquinas entered Albertus's workshop one day on an
unannounced visit, and was so surprised at being spoken to by a doll that
he decided it must be Satanic, and smashed it to pieces.
Automata and Mechanical Statues: As Europe slowly emerged from
the Middle Ages, automata became fashionable once
again. Clock chimes have been dated to the ninth century, clocktower mobiles have been dated to the 14th
century, and water powered mobiles in the gardens of the nobility have
been dated to the 16th century. As far as human automata were concerned,
the most ambitious attempt of all seems to have been Barbiton,
although the English mathematician-inventor Roger Bacon (1220-1292)
experimented with a talking head, and even the great Rene Descartes is
reported (we must assume scurrilously) to have travelled with an
artificial female companion! Later still, the Italian Gianello
Torriano made automata for the amusement of
Emperor Charles V of Lombardy (including a life-sized female lute player
which has survived), and the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson
(1709-1782) built a clockwork duck [cut-away drawing]
containing more than a thousand moving parts and capable of a range of
lifelike behaviours (including simulated defecation) for the amusement of
his Parisian patrons.
- Cranked and Mechanical
Voice: The first attempt to produce voice rather than music
from what was essentially a musical instrument was by Kratzenstein.
In 1773, he demonstrated a set of air-blown resonators capable of forming
a range of vowel sounds. This was followed very closely by Baron Wolfgang Von Kempelen, a Hungarian
inventor at the Austrian court. In 1791, he demonstrated equipment capable
of rudimentary speech synthesis. It consisted of a bellows to produce a
through draught, reeds and resonating chambers to produce phonation, and a
variety of wood, leather, and ivory articulators to produce the final
phonemes [pictures]. By 1823, Maelzel had patented a doll that could say
"Ma-ma" and "Pa-pa", by 1844, Faber was demonstrating
a "euphonia" capable of synthesising
all the sounds of all the European languages (Lindsay, 1997), and in 1939
we entered the post-mechanical age when Homer Dudley, of Bell Telephone
Laboratories, was able to develop VODER, the world's first electronic
Aleksander, I. and Burnett, P. (1983), Reinventing Man: The
Robot Becomes Reality (Harmondsworth: Pelican).
Ash, B. (Ed.) (1977), The
Visual Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (London: Pan).
Cohen, J. (1966), Human Robots in Myth and Science (London: Allen and Unwin).
Franklin, H.B. (2000), 'Computers in
fiction', in The Encyclopaedia of Computer Science (4th Edition), Ralston,
A., Reilly, E.D., and Hemmendinger, D. (Eds.) (New
Heyl, E. (1964), 'An unhurried view of
automata', The Magic Cauldron, Supplement #13.
Lindsay, D. (1997),
'Talking head', American Heritage of Invention and Technology, 13,
Mazlish, B. (1993), The
Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines (New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press).
Pratt, V. (1987), Thinking Machines: The
Evolution of Artificial Intelligence (Oxford: Blackwell).
Spence, L. (1915), Myths and Legends of
Egypt (London: Harrap).
Wood, G. (2002), Living Dolls: A Magical
History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (London: Faber and Faber).