Posts Tagged ‘Jacques Vaucanson’

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

The Strange World of Clockwork Robots

June 6, 2013

I find most of the material on TV now remarkable only for how uninteresting I find it. But occasionally on eof the TV companies puts on a little gem. One of these was Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on BBC 4 last Monday night at 9 pm. Presented by Professor Simon Schaffer, it was a history of European automato in the 17th and 18th centuries. Schaffer’s an historian of science, who has appeared on a number of other shows on the history of science. In this programme he discussed the way the development of clockwork in the Middle Ages had produced automata, little robots that were used in the most magnificent clocks. He showed the vast medieval clock in Berne in Switzerland with its numerous figurines. He then went to the palace of one the Austrian bishops, who had a Protestant clockmaker construct an entire clockwork town, complete with animals being slaughtered, artisans busy at their trades and all overseen by aristocrats, who themselves scarcely seemed to move. Schaffer noted this represented the ideal social hierarchy of which the Bishop was a part. The Bishop was supported in his wealthy by profits from the salt mines. The miners themselves were radical, and mostly Protestants. This had resulted in a crackdown by the Roman Catholic authorities. The Protestant mineworkers were banished. The clockmaker himself was forced to work under armed guard because of his sympathies.

Vaucanson’s Replicant Fluteplayer

The programme then moved on Jacques Vaucanson, whose works were surely more like clockwork replicants than simple authomata. Vaucanson was deeply impressed with the technology that lay behind these great robotic marvels. He believed that it would be possible to use it to create an artificial human being. So he spent his evenings studying human anatomy, dissecting cadavers in order to replicate them more accurately in his art. His greatest creation was a mechanical flute player, which actually player the flute. A set of bellows acted as lungs, to blow air into the instrument, while the figure’s hands moved to cover and uncover the holes. It was even covered with real skin. This mechanical marvel disappeared sometime in the 19th century in eastern Europe, and no-one knows where it is, or even if it still exists.

The Writing Boy of Jacquet Droz

Then there was Jacquet Droz, one of whose automata was a little boy that actually wrote. Schaffer explained that the key technological component of these automata was the cam, a wheel that moved the other pins and lever in the machines. The shape of the wheel governed the movement of the other levers, working the machines’ limbs. They thus acted as a kind of mechanical memory, storing the instructions for the automata’s movements. The great complicated automata, such as Vaucanson’s flute player and Droz’s writer, had a number of them stacked one on top the other within the machines in a column. This column rose and fell as each camn was selected in turn to govern its part of the machine’s complex movements. The writing boy was particularly impressive as it physically wrote out on paper, ‘I am Jacquet Droz’ in French. It also drew a dog, and indeed, by changing the letters arranged in a wheel at the base of the figure, you could programme it to write anything you chose. Schaffer concluded that it was the distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

Poor Watchmakers and the Automaton as Revolutionary Symbol of Aristocratic Class Oppression

These marvels were able to be produced through the intensive labour of poorly paid watchsmiths. These occupied particular areas of towns, such as Clerkenwell in London. There would be six or seven of them gathered around a table, working by candlelight to make a single component, such as an arm for the escapement mechanism. Schaffer noted that the technology began to acquire revolutionary implications. In the decades before the French Revolution, artisans and the working class began to claim equality with their lords and masters. These mechanical marvels were made for an exclusive audience of aristocrats. Jacquet Droz charged deliberately high prices so that only the upper crust could view them, and put up notices stating that servants would not be allowed in. The French Revolutionaries in their turn claimed that the king and the aristocracy were simply automata themselves, dressed in expensively lace. It was a dehumanising description that allowed them to send their monarch to the guillotine.

Automata, the Eccentric Monsieur Merlin, and the Export Trade with China

Over the Channel in England, automata were seen as a way of winning the export battle with China. Europeans craved expensive Chinese goods, such as porcelaine and tea. Frustratingly, the Chinese were completely uninterested with anything Europe had to offer, with the exception of automata. The British entrepreneur James Cox thus set to work making them for export to China. His greatest employee was a Belgian emigre called Merlin. Merlin was highly eccentric. When he appeared in public, it was dressed as a bar maid, serving drinks, while playing the violin rolling around on roller skates, which he had also invented. He wasn’t always able to stop. In one incident, recorded in the papers, he collided with a £40,000 mirror, which he smashed to ribbons. Merlin’s greatest creation was a mechanical swan. Glass rods mimicked the actions of water. Between them sawm little mechanical fish. When activated, the swan moved its head, bent down, and took and ate one of the fish.

Schaffer concluded the programme by comparing the storage of information on the automata’s cam systems, with the reproduction of speech on vinyl records, playing the programme out to a suitable piece of music.

Contemporary Automata, Musical Robots, and Automata as Inspiration for Dr. Who Monsters.

It was a fascinating programme. There have been a number of exhibitions of automata in recent years. You can find footage of them, including Jacquet Droz’s writing boy and Merlin’s swan on Youtube. The tradition of musical robots has also been taken up by Compressorhead. This is a genuinely all robot band, which I believe come from Germany. As robots, they naturally play Heavy Metal. You can find footage of them playing Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. Several of the automata clearly inspired some of the monsters in Dr. Who. Clockwork androids featured in a David Tennant episode, where the good doctor had to defend Madame Pompadour from being turned into spare parts for a stranded spaceship far in the future. The programme also featured the chess-playing Turk. This was an elaborate hoax. It was supposedly a mechanical figure of a Turk that played chess. It toured Europe, beating just about all the chess masters it played against. That was until its secret was revealed. The cabinet beneath the figure was actually large enough to hold a full-sized man, who moved the arms of the figure above him. He could even follow the game by looking upwards. There was a nod to this in a recent Dr. Who episode. Penned by the mighty Neil Gaiman, this had a hollowed-out cyberman that played chess, secretly worked by a dwarf. The dwarf was played by Warwick Davis, now showing that you can have a career after appearing as an Ewok.

Automata and the Industrial Revolution

Schaffer also noted that the automata may also have served as inspiration for the mechanised looms of the industrial revolution. In a meeting with his fellow factory masters, Joseph Arkwright had wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to produce mechanical arms to work the looms similar to the mechanical arms of the automata. Surveying the merchanical arms on the industrial looms, Schaffer wondered if it wasn’t too far-fetched to see the similarity between them and those of the automata.

M. Merlin and the Artist as Eccentric, Then and Now

The programme also showed how old the relationship between art and personal eccentricity had been. Since Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and the Surrealists artists have been linked to outrageous behaviour. So outrageous at times, that George Orwell felt compelled to attack the special treatment with which artists are indulged for attitudes and behaviour that would be condemned as completely unacceptable amongst Joe Public in his article, ‘Benefit of Clergy’. M. Merlin’s bizarre appearance and behaviour clearly qualifies him for inclusion with the other, contemporary masters of the bizarre and shocking, such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and the Chapman Brothers, and some of the other winners of the Turner Prize. One of these also dresses in female attire. This part of the programme shows that art has always contained more than element of showmanship, and that artists have been shocking, scandalising and entertaining the public with bizarre displays of personal behaviour since the 18th century, if not long before. It didn’t just emerge with the Surrealists and the Situationists in the ’20s and 60’s.

Schaffer did get something wrong, however. He seemed to suggest that clockwork first emerged in order to regulate town life. They didn’t. They emerged to regulate the times of prayer of the church, so that even villages had clocks. These also could possess automata. One of the devices portrayed in the notebook of the great thirteenth century architect and engineer, Villard de Honnecourt, is for a clockwork angel that revolved to face the sun. Nevertheless, Schaffer’s programme was a fascinating documentary on the prehistory of modern robotics. Unfortunately it was placed on BBC 4, which the Beeb seems to see as dumping ground for all the intellectual stuff it should produce as a publicly funded broadcaster, but which don’t actually bring the ratings its bosses crave. It should, however, be available on BBC iplayer. Some of the programmes first shown on BBC 4 are repeated on BBC 2. I hope that’s the case, as this fine programme deserves a wider audience.

See below for a piece from Youtube of Jacquet Droz’s automata, including the writing boy.

And here’s the awesome Compressorhead. Is it just me, or do they really look like the robots Art Robot Kevin O’Neill used to draw in the Robusters and ABC Warriors strips in 2000 AD.