Friday, April 4, 2014

intelligent reaping machines

"Artificial intelligence" has always been a moving target: once something is automated, we no longer think of it as requiring intelligence. This goes back longer than you would think. Here's a report from the Kenosha County Fair in September 1852:
"This almost intelligent Machine seemed to attract the most notice of any of the Farming Implements on exhibition at the County Fair. From what examination we had time to make of its capacity and working quality, we have no hesitation in saying that it exceeds in simplicity and capability every machine that was ever carried into the field to assist the farmer. Its exact and regular working betrayed almost intuitive intelligence itself-- To be appreciated, it must be seen in working order. It not only cuts the grain, but it rakes it into a bundle, and then with its long fingers and arms it gathers the grain and deposits it in regular gavels all ready for the binder."
This is describing a mechanical reaper. By automating what had been a labor-intensive task, reapers had a huge effect on the world, contributing to urbanization, the availability of labor for factory work, population growth, impacts on slavery, and so forth.