It’s Only a Model

Long before there was the Age of the Robot there was the Age of the Automaton.

That Age lasted from the end of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Lacking computers, electronics, or even useful electricity, the scientists and model makers of the age were unbelievably skilled at making cams and linkages mimic what living things could do.  They produced literally hundreds of wonderful models of humans and animals.

Most of the larger ones are lost to time, but we can get a flavor, at least, by looking at some of the surviving clocks they made.  You can see them in cities all over Europe.  When the hour strikes, mounted knights perform jousts, couples swirl in dances or clockwork chickens lay eggs.

But these are just the crudest (and hence most reliable) of the things they made.  Using drums with pins on their surfaces (like a modern music box), complex levers, and cams, they were able to create figures with smooth, coordinated, lifelike movements.  They made lions that roared, elephants that walked, and human figures that actually played musical instruments.

They were wildly popular.  Shows and exhibitions opened up in many of the largest cities, each striving to outdo the others in having the most complex and lifelike figures.  Many of the figures were “programmable,” particularly the musical varieties, so new shows could be introduced.  By simply changing the cams and drums, the flute player or dancer could be made to play or dance to a different tune.

A Swiss named Jacquet-Droz made a mechanical figure that played tunes on the harpsichord and a boy that could actually write.  According to a contemporary description, “When the mechanism is started, the boy dips his pen in the inkwell, shakes it twice, places his hand at the top of the page, and pauses. As the level is pressed again, he begins to write, slowly and carefully, distinguishing in his characters between light and heavy strokes.”

Many of the men who made these were interested in far more than the creation of side-shows.  They wanted to make machines that would actually imitate life itself.  One of the most famous, a Frenchman named Jacques de Vaucanson, made a mechanical duck that could quack, flap its wings, and stretch out his neck to take food from a spectator’s hand.  He made it as lifelike as possible, with each wing containing more than 400 moving parts.  But even more impressively, Vaucanson gave it an artificial stomach and gut.  The duck “digested” the food it was given and then actually excreted the results.

Another, Wolfgang von Kempelen, managed to make a machine to duplicate the human organs of speech.  It had a voice box, jaws, and a kind of a mechanical tongue.  Using a kind of keyboard, he was able to make it pronounce words and even simple sentences.  He intended to eventually drive it by clockwork.  Then he could house it in the figure of a child and make the child “speak.”

Sadly, von Kempelen was unable to complete this project.  Instead, he found his entire life taken over by another automaton that he had made in response to a command from Empress Maria Theresa.  The empress used him as a sort of tame scientist to explain to her how various magicians and conjurers performed their tricks.  She challenged him to make an automaton that would be cleverer and fool more people than those he had unmasked.

In response, he made a figure that is known to history as “The Turk.”  It was a chess-playing automaton, dressed in an exotic Eastern costume, which sat behind a desk and challenged all comers.   It didn’t speak, but it rolled its eyes, nodded its head, and moved one arm to pick up and move the chess pieces.

Von Kempelen would first open the cabinet so that the spectators could see that it was crowded with wheels and gears, then he would wind it up and step away.  Despite the fact that it was obviously merely a clockwork machine, The Turk won the vast majority of the games it played.

There were many articles and even some whole books written about The Turk.  Quite a few of them were clearly debunking the apparently commonly accepted idea that The Turk was simply an incredibly complex automaton that could simulate human reason with its wheels and gears so well as to defeat even expert humans.

Now the truth, of course, is that The Turk was a hoax.  Hidden inside was a real, breathing human being.  All the wheels and gears were simply clever camouflage that allowed the real chess player to escape detection.

But what is really amazing about the whole story is just how many people were prepared to believe that technology had already managed to produce such wonderful mechanical devices that being able to make a machine that actually reasoned was only a step away.  And what that says about humanity’s own lilliputian image of human reason is simply staggering.  After all, they said, a human being is simply a very complex machine.  Surely the difference is only one of degree.

Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that we much more sophisticated and modern human beings would be liable to the same error, but…

Well, let me tell you about Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker is a really brilliant guy at MIT.  He is an expert on language and the mind.  A few years ago he wrote a very good book on language called The Language Instinct, essentially demonstrating that the Chomsky hypothesis (i.e. the human brain is hardwired to be a language processor) is pretty clearly proven.  A few years after that he wrote another book called How the Mind Works.  In it he first used computer subroutines to model the brain’s functions, then forgot they were only models.  He slipped from saying the mind works like this to therefore-the-mind-is-this without noticing the speed bump in between.  In his latest book The Blank Slate, he settles the whole nature vs nurture debate by treating DNA as a master computer program that leaves nurture with darned little to do.

To say that I think Pinker’s reasoning is fallacious is a bit of an understatement.  But what is more interesting to me is that I think he has exactly the same problem as all those people who thought The Turk was real.  In order (presumably) to understand how people think, he makes a mental model of the brain’s functions.  It is, inevitably, a rather simplistic model.  Then, when some external device (like, say, a computer program or a mess of cams and gears) comes along that can produce results like his model, he forgets that it is a model of the brain and says that the brain itself must be just like the external widget.  After all, Professor Pinker and all his spiritual cousins seem to be saying, the human brain is just a big computer.  Surely the difference is only one of degree.

Sound familiar?

Obviously I am being a little unfair, singling out Steven Pinker.  I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard some variation of that same argument.  It is just another of those things we humans do.  Finding a problem way too complex to solve, we make a simplistic model we can solve.  Then we promptly forget that it is only a model.

Insofar as people go, it is pretty understandable.  Our fellow creatures are so fiendishly complex and unpredictable that it makes far more sense to deal with reductionist models than the unmanageable realities.

Which brings me to Valentine’s Day.

Falling in love is one of the most wonderful experiences life has to offer.  Still, like any good drug, it has certain side effects.  For one thing, it can really corrupt the judgment.  (Which we can talk about…some other time.)  For another, it tempts that reductionist side of our brain.

Our love object is wonderful beyond compare.  Thoughtful, sensitive, with a great sense of humor, and…well, you get the idea.  We gaze rapturously at the picture we create.  What we don’t allow ourselves to see is that the other person is complex, convoluted, and contradictory.  In short, human.

What we want, far too often, is an adorable love object blessed with the consummate wisdom to adore us in return.  What we don’t want is some sort of a glorified study project that will require an unreasonable amount of attention.

I suspect it is one of the best signs of human maturity to want a fully rounded person.  Someone who is actually complicated enough to be a bit difficult and demanding of real effort.  Someone who defies that temptation we all seem to have to see others in simplistic terms.

Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the glorious KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid – doesn’t it?

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