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“It was when I was preparing this lecture that I discovered that roboticists have a god: Hephaestus. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was an ingenious, talented craftsman, known for the remarkable weapons he made. But he also made wheelchairs that moved about on their own (basically, mobile robots) and golden servants that helped him to move about (basically, helper robots), and he even made Pandora, a clay statue to whom Athena gave life. He had a tumultuous love life, as attested by the following passage by Apollodorus, a chronicler from the second century BCE:
Athena visited Hephaistos, wanting to fashion some arms. But Hephaistos, who had been deserted by Aphrodite, yielded to his desire for Athena and began to chase after her, while the goddess for her part tried to escape. When he caught up with her at the expense of much effort (for he was lame), he tried to make love to her. But she, being chaste and a virgin, would not permit it, and he ejaculated over the goddess’s leg. In disgust, she wiped the semen away with a piece of wool and threw it to the ground. As she was fleeing…
While Hephaestus is the god of doing, Athena, who appears here as the one who calls the tune, is the goddess of knowing or —to protect me from reprimands from the exegetes, especially in this assembly— let me consider her as such for the purpose this lecture. Hephaestus was thus seeking to possess Athena. He was unable to do so. Could the doing not aspire to the knowing? A hard blow for the roboticist.
Robotics stems from this tension. Although the myth contradicts a current tendency to confuse science and technology, it does nevertheless reflects my own experience regarding innovation —experience that I might sum up as follows: even though doing is not understanding, understanding enables one to do, but unfortunately, not always. And even though one may very well do without understanding, doing also enables one to have tools —sometimes surprising ones— for understanding.
Hephaestus is starting all over again with new Pandoras. They are no longer of clay, but mecatronic. And they are animated. The roboticist keeps on asking the question of autonomy: what adaptability can we hope to give these new machines? The analogy between humans and machines has to be made23; it cannot be avoided. In the end, does Hephaestus have the keys to knowledge? With his machines that adapt, that “decide” on their actions, what can he tell us about our own “functioning”? The question is both dangerous and beautiful.
Let us bear in mind the image of the myth —and it is only an image, for even if the roboticist can identify with Hephaestus and can shape Pandora out of clay, he is neither Athena nor Geppetto. He will never give any humanity to clay or wood. A robot is a machine controlled by a computer; nothing else. Although animated, it remains and will remain an inanimate object without a soul that becomes attached to our soul [and without] the power of lovei. Let us allow the demi-gods to talk, let us enjoy works by Fritz Lang and Mary Shelley, and let us not be afraid. But are we actually anxious? That is not so sure. In any case, our Japanese friends aren’t, they who are so different from us; they for whom union is possible.”
‘An automaton is defined as a machine that contains its own principle of motion. Strictly speaking, a clock is an automaton. The notion of an artificial human figure—an “android” as it has come to be called—derives in part from the tradition of the striking jack in the great medieval town clocks, in which the hour would be sounded by a mechanical figure springing into motion with a hammer and gong. That this employment once fell to a living person, the town watchman suggests that here were our first labor-saving robots. But the animated figure, or moving sculpture, can be traced back to ancient Egypt. “At Thebes accordingly, there were statues that spoke and made gestures. The priests made the heads and arms move by devices not as yet clearly explained” we are told by Egyptologist Alexandre Moret, invoking the same combination of mystery, divine intervention, human ingenuity, and mechanics of deception our own monk exhibits. Theater has always been the partner of religion.
The sixteenth century was a period of tremendous mechanical sophistication: the dawning of the scientific revolution. Clockmaking was to become a profession in its own right, separate from its origin in the blacksmith’s art, and its former association with gun- and locksmithing. Precision timekeeping in centuries to come would become crucial to the world shipping trade for its use in determining navigational longitude.  But in its early form, clockmaking was driven less by the problem of measuring time, and more by the astronomer’s efforts to model the locations and motions of “the fixed and moving stars,” that is, to capture the animating principle of the universe.
A significant development—perhaps the significant development—from the medieval town clock, driven by enormous systems of weights, was the emergence of the spiral spring combined with the fusee. A fusee is an ingenious device for making the driving force of a spring constant. Once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, earlier examples of the fusee have now been found. When wound, a mainspring could now deliver a steady application of tension, rather than a stronger and then progressively weaker force as it ran down. An early fusee, made of wood, is found in the mechanism of the monk .
The other important development in the mechanical arts was the cam. An ancient device attributed to Archimedes, the cam reached broad use in the fifteenth century in the striking trains of clocks. A cam is simply a barrel or disk of metal rotated by the gear train. Its outer edge is either studded with short pins, or cut to a calculated profile, and as it turns, one end of a lever, riding against that uneven edge, is set in motion. Called a following arm, the lever translates the cam’s calculated profile into reciprocating movements that can be highly precise and carefully timed. Numbers of such levers can operate for example the spring-tensioned linkages to the monk’s arms, legs, head, eyes. The cam is thus the memory of the machine, and its profile is the analog information base for generating the exact movements of a given part.”
-Elizabeth King, “A Short History of the Relations Between Machines and Divinity (Deus ex Machina).”
“Elizabeth King, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, describes how–according to legend–Philip II held up his end of the bargain with the help of a renowned clockmaker and an intricate invention. Jad and Latif head to the Smithsonian to meet curator Carlene E. Stephens, who shows them the inner workings of a nearly 450-year-old monkbot. ” [Via]
Listen to Radiolab’s podcast here:
“In the history of European clock technology, the monk is an early and very rare example of a self-acting automaton, one whose mechanism is wholly contained and hidden within its body. Its uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata: it is not charming, it is not a toy, it is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and it engages even the twentieth-century viewer in a complicated and urgent way. It has duende, the dark spirit Federico García Lorca described. Myself a sculptor, negotiating competing ways of representing human substance and spirit, I wanted to know more about this hypnotic object, and the legend connected to it…
How was the monk used once it was made, who operated it and who would have seen it? Above all, how was it seen, and what beliefs might have been crucial to its effect on spectators? This essay narrates the chronology of my search for answers to these questions. I am not a historian, and I have preferred to let the search itself be visible as a part of my subject. Driven as much by the physical presence of the monk as by the legend of the bedside promise, this work is ultimately an artist’s homage to the human attempt to model an act of the spirit…
The monk is, like all automata, a recording, a kind of artificial memory. What can he tell us?
…In 1980, the Smithsonian changed the name of its National Museum of History and Technology. It would now be called the National Museum of American History. And some changes started to take place, subtle ones at first, but in recent years there have been shifts in institutional priority that have alarmed many historians and scholars. For one thing, the monk, as of December 1997, is now removed from view. The old instrument and timekeeping displays have been redesigned with a new theme in mind: the meaning of time to Americans and its influence on American life. But it isn’t just politics as usual: not only is the monk unAmerican, he slips through all kinds of identification parameters. He isn’t a clock, he isn’t a calculator, he isn’t a sculpture, he isn’t an icon, he isn’t a plaything: he doesn’t fit anywhere! We still don’t know how to look at him. And he troubles us.”
That time we explained the Automatons in THE AUTOMATION, 2014.
“In ancient mythology, Hephaestus/Vulcan created robotic helpmates of animal, human, and monster form. Daedalus created some too, but they were never as dope-ass divine, probably. Probably.
Anyways, there were a few – about ten – of such god-forged creations that didn’t make it into classical mythology (they’re old, but not THAT old). That’s why there’s a new modern epic devoted to them here“.
‘”Cyborg” is a loaded and attention-grabbing term, bearing associations from sci-fi novels and Hollywood, and whether it’s an entirely accurate label for these activities is up for debate. Some commentators broaden the definition to include anyone who uses artificial devices, such as computer screens or iPhones. Others prefer to narrow it. As early as 2003, in an article entitled “Cyborg morals, cyborg values, cyborg ethics,” Kevin Warwick, the professor who pioneered the cyborg movement in the academic sphere, described ‘cyborgs’ as being only those entities formed by a “human, machine brain/nervous system coupling”—essentially “a human whose nervous system is linked to a computer.”
Cyborgian implantation activities take place outside the clinic or hospital, as a sort of parallel to standardised medical experimentation. There is a keen desire to win over public support, which might explain the mob of journalists at the Dusseldorf event, who almost outnumbered the public. Österlund is clear: “We’re not going to work on sick people. That’s up to the medical industry,” he explains. “But we’re upgrading healthy people so that they can predict health issues. That’s definitely going to be the future.”
The concept of enhancement is what distinguishes cyborgism from other medical implantation, or from the ordinary fact of having to wear corrective glasses. This is not about therapeutics or repair, but about augmenting human senses beyond the norm. Despite the distinct gap between cyborg implants and clinical medicine, Cannon does think that they could fruitfully interact. “I think that a lot of time you have people in academia who are squeamish,” he accepts. “But as a result of medicine being the only people allowed to experiment, that has bound our hands and stymied research for a really long time. Well, we’re talking about being able to choose to participate in these experiments as perfectly healthy people and really investigate what’s possible. It allows us to move with an alacrity that science and medicine cannot in its current state.”
Legally, cyborgism falls into a nebulous category, neither regulated nor forbidden by law. In the UK, because the devices have no therapeutic value, doctors who carry out implant procedures potentially open themselves to legal risks, according to one GP, Dr Zoe Norris, who says most doctors would view the procedures as being purely cosmetic and therefore landing closer to the desks of their plastic surgeon colleagues. A spokeswoman for the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons said that the organisation isn’t aware of a plastic surgeon implanting any such device. Nurses and technicians, she said, would be sufficiently well-equipped to carry out these fairly simple procedures, with only larger devices possibly requiring a surgeon. It therefore falls to the hands of tattoo and body modification artists to conduct the procedures or, in one case I heard of, a veterinarian (the grey-suited man who implanted Michael’s magnet at the fair was a tattoo artist). The UK’s House of Commons has produced a document that sets out the legislation, health guidance, consumer law and training relating to tattooing and body piercing—without mentioning chip implants or magnets in particular. The guidelines note that “contrary to popular belief, there is no formal minimum qualification for tattooists and body piercers.”’
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]