Automata evolved from acting like us to acting on behalf of us. What if it was possible for an automaton to do the work of a human? Would the stuff of Aristotle's ruminations come to pass, eliminating the need for servants and slaves? To realize that fantasy – as Albertus Magnus supposedly did in the 13 th century, with the construction of a life-size human domestic servant automaton – is to eliminate the need for humans to pay Attention to certain aspects of work in the home. These automata promised to give owners a surplus of energy and attention, but at a cost.
Scientists have long recognized, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson argued in his 1960 "The Mind of Mechanical Man", that aside from the mind, “both animal and human bodies were nothing more than a collection of pumps, reservoirs, bellows, fires, cooling and heating systems, tubes, conduits, kitchens, girders, levers, pulleys and ropes.” (Clearly, as John Stewart points out, little has changed since)
In this model, automata do not have minds, hearts, or souls. This was all the better, since those human aspects might have forced the automata into unnecessary error. These perfect machines began to gain power over the very humans who operated them, a power which became even more threatening when humans wrestled with the possibility that their creations might actually come to life. What, then, would these exploited classes do? Embedded in their very name are the seeds of revolutionary threat: robot (as human-shaped automata are widely referred to) comes from the Czech robota, meaning forced labor, and it is a term that was first used in Karel Čapek's 1921 play Rossum's Universal Robots, or R.U.R.
The questions raised by this term in Čapek's play are central questions in the discourse of modernity – questions of the nature of man and machine and of the boundaries between the two. Human-like machines threaten to come to life and overpower the control of their former masters; machine-like humans threaten to destroy life, overpowering any sense of humanity and the body of humanity itself.
(Picture: Georg Grosz. Republican Automatons.)
From the faceless figures in Georg Grosz's Republican Automata (above) with hooks for hands and gears for souls, to the orphaned machine of Francis Picabia's The Child Carburetor (born of the work of man but devoid of his agency) the machine-like human and the human-like machine confuse our sense of where us stops and the machine we created to stand for us begins.
(Picture: Francis Picabia. The Child Carburetor.)
In 1950, Norbert Wiener wrote in his 1950 work on cybernetics "The Human Use
of Human Beings":
When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we asks the right questions.
Let us bear this careful warning in mind, as we evaluate the visions being articulated now by our most noble leaders of the Internet. Take for example the recent speech by Ray Ozzie, Chief Software Architect at Microsoft to an audience of financial analysts:
But beyond infrastructure services, what's most unique and valuable about a very large-scale services platform is what I'll refer to as optimization. By optimization I mean the monitoring and utilization of both collective end-user behavior and individual behavior to rank content for the user. That ranked content might be the order of advertisements in a search or e-mail window, or the order of relevant news items or playlists or video clips or items in a marketplace that are presented to the user...Optimization always respectful of a user's privacy will be increasingly key to delivering great user experiences, and it's already a key factor in the area of profitability, because the larger the number of users that are connected to any services platform, the more behavioral the data that can be generated. The larger the number of PCs and other devices that are connected to that platform, the more behavioral data that's available; the larger the number of applications connected to the platform, both Web apps and desktop apps, the better our optimizations will be and the more profitable it will be for us and for our partners.
It is remarkable the extent to which Ozzie seems to ignore the fundamental Web 2.0 premise that users are in control, and that just because behavioral data may be generated automatically, that does not mean that the companies enabling such data (ie Microsoft) have necessary dibs on it.
Over history, automata were at once objects calling for our attention – objects meant to enrapture us in spectacle – as well as objects that offered to do our work without requiring our Attention. This represented the threat of triumph over human mastery: that these automata might take on lives of their own, rendering humans obsolete and placing us at the mercy of the machine which always acts without emotion, error or thought. The power of choice manifests itself in one's ability to ask, in Weiner's words, "the right questions." Right questions might be those queries specifically which elude their engine's best attempts at matching them to willing advertisers.