We Build Automata So to
Mend Our Broken Dreams
‘We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical,’ says Replicant Roy Batty to the brilliant but emotionally stunted genetic designer J.F., in Blade Runner, after he asked Roy and Priss to ‘do something.’
We’ve been asking these quasi-beings that we create to ever so closely resemble our own likeness, to do things for us since at least the 300s BCE, when mathematician Archytas built his steam powered dove.
From that first artificial bird to today’s wonders of modern animatronics on the screen, and Japanese robots all around, we’ve built a hefty utopian timeline of artificial bodies, made of assorted materials or other body parts. No wonder, they also litter the stuff of our nightmares.
Designed to obey, first, then to go where no human could possibly survived, as Philip K. Dick envisioned, we seemed to have this immemorial angst of beating god at his own game and develop a more faithful companion than our own kind, only to get frustrated, if they’d grow too loyal, or killed, if they’d turn on us.
Fictionally, of course. Even though we should’ve known better by now, we still pursue a variety of traditions of supernatural beings doing things for us or to us, creating and destroying our world at will, acting just like summarized versions of the supreme invisible deity billions believe controls our every move on this planet.
From the Golem to Godzilla, from Adam to Frankenstein, we’re transfixed by the thought of being capable of creating or even conceiving another animated body, made out of mud and plastic, to sooth our desperate loneliness in a vast, totally indifferent universe.
It could as well be that we’re just bored, or no longer can stand any of the other 6,999,999,999 bodies cramped and imprisoned in this tiny rock, swirling steadily but completely out of our control, and dream of one day be on the other side of the puppeteering strings.
PROMETHEUS’S FAILED DELIVERANCE
Curiously, in our millennial zeal of building the perfect beast, never mind the billions around us we care little about, we got no close to breathe life into any of them. At the most, we may’ve perfected yet another almost obsolete obsession in the process: the clockwork.
Thus the centuries-old automata, marvels of mechanical prowess, and the industry that once thrived manufacturing them, may have reached flights of imagination and promise across time, but are now all but reduced to that wonder of functionality and futility: the Roomba.
About those exquisite androids of yore, The Writer is in a particular time capsule all of its own. Designed by Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, it’s a bundle of 6,000 programmable moving pieces, wrapped within the wooden body of a boy.
It looks like a vintage toy but it’s way more than that. (more)
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Armed with a quill, it can write and draw, through a highly complex set of cogs and letters that can be, in theory, reprogrammed at will. And it’s completely self-sufficient: inside, it has all it needs to perform its task flawlessly.
Movie pioneer Georges Méliès is known to have an been avid collector of androids, a fact celebrated in a memorable storyline in Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and its Martin Scorsese movie adaptation. The one in the movie, The Draughtsman-Writer, was built by yet another Swiss watchmaker, Henri Maillardet.
THE MONK & THE GAMBLER
History records many instances when an automaton became a sage of sorts, a Brazen Head, ‘capable of answering any possible question one may have,’ according to a 1700s’ account. That’s when a perceived sense of divinity lends a paradigm of life to an inanimate object.
As most of everything, such tradition found its way to circus and sideshows, prone of training these garish practitioners of the ancient arts of illusion, magic, card games and astrology in the oldest art of them all: to take your money. When they are capable of moving, however, they acquired yet another layer of human similitude.
The Monk, for instance: a 400-year-old, 15-inch, key-wound spring driven homunculus which combines a religious penitence to its mechanical gait, as it walks, nods its head, brings a cross to its lips, while raising and lowering its arm. It’s thought to have been made to order by Emperor Charles V., the one who outlawed Martin Luther.
The Gambler, on the other side, is a contemporary creation of Swedish artist Per Helldorff, who wouldn’t be out of place in any street-carnival fair of Europe, circa 1900s. Not nearly as complex as those above, it nevertheless fulfills one more human frailty we seem to resort to when all else fails: betting our odds.
MUSIC BOX & KILLER DRONES
Where the grace and likeness of the human body is lacking, Renaissance people chose the reverie of sounds and the ethereal swirl of a tiny ballerina, or the cerebral precision of a clock that never stops ticking and periodically delivers a wooden bird that coos the hours. (Should’ve picked the vintage one you saw in Grimsby last year).
However, for us, if the figure can’t move or look like one of us, if it can’t be a robot to be bossed around, or scratch our backs, then it has to have such a mathematical ability as to astound and make a dent into even the astronomical calculations of the universe. In other words, the computer.
But for as much as there are plenty of ancestors to our pocket size electronic brains (they take pictures too), which can be traced back all the way to pre-biblical times to the Antikythera mechanism, a way more sinister application to that same non-corporeal power has found the light of our age.
Ladies and gents, we give you drones, those flying and lethal mechanical computers, designed to spy and kill and who knows what other evil purpose they’ll be devoted to in the near future. And with them, we declare that we’re likely through with trying to emulate and manufacture a beautiful face to our deeds.
Just the speed and the ability to pull the trigger will suffice for most of our intents. So, no need for an oracle, a poetic chord performed by a beautiful machine, or even the slight resemblance of a distant uncle. All we need, now, is the raw power of savagery to blast us all back to the Ice Age.
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
‘I used to think I was serving humanity and I pleasure in the thought. Then I discovered that humanity does not want to be served; on the contrary it resents any attempt to serve it,’ reveals Jubal Harshaw, in Heinlein‘s classic Stranger in a Strange Land. ‘Now I do what pleases myself,’ he tells an enthralled Valentine Smith.
Thus, there won’t be intelligent cyborgs, capable of loving life more than us, who get it for free and take it for granted. Not even our cloning ingenuity will be capable of creating a benevolent being out of synthetic materials. And with all luck, those we’ve been developing for years will someday turn on us. Fallen angels becoming malignant devils, as Shelley alluded.
We’re destined to remain alone in the universe, but don’t take our word for it. At this point, even the raw materials from which we built our elaborated world, hate us and wish we were no longer around, so they, and life on this planet itself, could survive another dozen billion years.
The visionaries of the past, the crazy poets and insane artists who projected a multitude of endless possibilities for the future we now squandered, today wouldn’t find decent employment, or a part-time position at McDonald’s. And their unconventional fever for creation would be crushed in some homeless shelter.
Without them, we have no eyes to build tomorrow, and slowly, even our children will forget how magic it is to watch a contraption suddenly acquire life and inform us of another dimension where magic itself is a daily occurrence. Not with the upcoming new model of the iPhone already occupying the full extent of their daydreaming.
All things must past, and fast, and even the white dove has to be let go. For who amongst us still wants redemption brought about like a medieval painting? Or by a superhero? As Roy, ‘the light that burned twice as bright,’ summarizes in that anguished but effective soliloquy, ‘All those moments will be lost in time, like tears… in the rain.’
(*) Originally published on Jan. 16, 2014.