A few of the machines covered in this book were intended for practical purposes, but most of them were for built for entertainment, magic, or both. These machines play on many illusions that are built into the human way of seeing the world. The early scientists drew little distinction between experiment and demonstration, and many instruments designed to illustrate a principle or entertain an audience were later used to further scientific knowledge. Showing how these illusions are built into our understanding of creative machines and processes is a second theme of the book. In the earliest case, divination machines, the devices were treated as magical by true believers in magic. Through the 1800s, automata were part of magic shows, presented as if they were magical, but with the audience aware that the magic was a carefully contrived illusion. More serious efforts at artificial intelligence beginning with invention of electronic computers inadvertently followed many of the same techniques, and had the same effect of fooling audiences into seeing the illusion of a mind, but their inventors often neglected to acknowledge the underlying illusions.
A History of Creative Devices
The title of this book, Machinamenta, is a Latin word that means “machines.” It has only the oldest connotations—machines as siege engines, as tools of stagecraft, as ingenious contraptions. It was also used to mean clever schemes—devices in the other sense, or machinations. A primary meaning of machina in the middle ages was the cranes used by architects for building. So there is a sense of “creation” in this early definition. It was used as a metaphor in the phrase machina mentis, machines of the mind, to describe how the tools of memory could be used as a tool for innovation. The 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher used machinamenta to describe some marvelous devices, including the self-playing Aeolian harp. So it seemed appropriate to gather under this term this diverse collection of artistic devices.
The world of computers changes incredibly quickly. Papers from a decade ago in my own field, computer vision and graphics, are almost certain to have been surpassed by more recent research that has built on them. Many of the pioneers involved with the first digital computers are still alive today. A drawback of this is that as a field, we have a very short memory. We forget that other people have been struggling with the same questions for many, many years. The problems faced in trying to build intelligent and creative machines are not merely technical, but philosophical. What is the difference between creative and derivative? What is the nature of beauty? What makes something interesting? How does the mind work?
The history of the field of computer science usually only goes back as far as World War II, with perhaps a mention of Babbage. Predictions of the future of the field, however, have never been in short supply. The field of artificial intelligence has more than its share of prophets, playing on the same hopes and fears that have been associated with machines that can speak to us since prehistoric times. Only by examining the project of AI in terms of its deep philosophical, mechanical, and spiritual roots can we make proper judgments about the nature of these machines now and in the future.