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The ancient origins of automation



Screenshot: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

The robots come for our jobs, artificial intelligence is on the rise and invisible programs take over our lives. "Automation" is the word that appears in each of these contexts, and much more. It is certainly one of the threatening concepts of Our Times – a corporate imperative, an economic engine, a utopian ideal. We automate work, systems and services. Monitoring, trading, manufacturing, monitoring. Everything or almost to be tried.

But it's a deceptively nebulous concept that strikes a chord in our psyche beyond definition, like "the technique with which an apparatus, a process, or a system automatically works." Understanding how our When we think about automation and where the drive for automation comes from, we should better understand what it looks like today. After all, only relatively recently did we have the urge to automate something like "entrepreneurs who want to make more profits and cut labor costs."

So I wanted to find out the origins of automation. I have done so in a series of conversations and correspondence with scientists and scholars whose work focuses on topics ranging from Greek mythology robots to the biological roots of abstract thinking. The instinct for automation, classics, and zoologists seemed to belong to the oldest and most universal human traits. In fact, it was argued that it was nothing less than the act that separates man from the beast.


Especially in the middle of the 20th century, "Automation" was put into use. The ubiquity of the word has helped to obscure the fact that it has a curious, very typical midcentury atmosphere. Automation; it's almost Jetsons-like. It's one or two jumps away from Smell-O-Vision – the word itself is a retroofuture. It is appropriate that the first use of "automation" is generally attributed to a Vice President at Ford, the company famous for manufacturing midwives in the industry. Delmar Harder founded the company's first automation department in the late 1940s and coined the term. Its mechanized factory, in which auto parts were automatically transferred from station to station, was hailed as a marvel of engineers. It also helped trigger a widespread panic about the impending job loss that eventually demanded the attention of just one or two congressional hearings.

But automation was not a leap of "automatic" or "automaton", both stuck out of ancient Greek αὐτός, auto-self.

"The first written use of the word" automaton "in Western literature appeared in Homer's Iliad, narrating the marvelous self-propelled and intelligent machines made by Hephaestus, the blacksmith of invention and technology," Stanford said. Classics Adrienne Mayor in an e-mail. Mayor wrote me off the street and traveled in support of her new book Gods & Robots which examines the earliest cultural and technological manifestations of automatic machines and artificial intelligence. "In about 700 BC Wrote Homer gates of the sky, which opened automatically and closed, in order to admit the cars of the gods. a fleet of driverless three-wheeled carriages delivering nectar and ambrosia to the banquets of the god; a bank of automated bellows that have adjusted their pressure as needed; and the crew of golden female androids equipped with artificial intelligence to anticipate Hephaestus's every need, "Mayor told me.

" This was a warrior, essentially the first killer robot. "

Dr. Kanta Dihal and her colleagues from the Center for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge have studied in detail the historical narratives of artificial intelligence and automated systems." What we found were the first stories Dihal, "Dihal told me," both the Greek myths about machines and the automata that actually made them are all very positively portrayed, the earliest story of Hephaestus' golden maidservants – they are pretty much a mix of care bots and personal assistants designed to make a God's hard work much easier, which means they need to be quite powerful. "

The earliest impulses for automation at that time were highly interesting – automated servant bots and robotic caretakers were suitable devices gods – and as blessing for their masters desired, not only for the care, but also for safety and protection. But, according to mayor, these benefits were reserved only for the gods – when the automatic machines came to earth, the population was more cautious.

"The story of the bronze robot Talos, who was forged by Hephaestus and defended the island of Crete appeared at about the same time writing in a poem by Hesiod," said Mayor.

"This was a warrior, essentially the one The first killer robot, "said Dihal," is not a very positive story, depending on which side of the robot you were on, but he wanted to protect you from pirates. "Talos was not controversial for his automated qualities, it seems – the robotic robotic post was simply a blessing to his master and a threat to passers-by not sensible enough to have his own robotic armies.

Remember that all early robot myths and automata – the above-described drones, servant bots and killer robots – are old . Automation is older than Jesus.

The poets who had recorded the first reruns of the Robotica, mayors said: "They had even older oral traditions, which meant that humans could imagine themselves over 2,700 years ago in automakers and self-propelled devices, long before technological inventions made them feasible made. Thus, the classical Greek myths show that animated statues and automata were conceivable surprisingly early, long before there were scientific innovations in mechanics.

But were the Greeks the concept of automation itself unique? Probably not, said Mayor. "The impulse to 'automate', improve nature and strengthen human powers is extremely old and widespread."


"I suggest: we" – humans – "are the animal that automates." This is a statement by Dr Antone Martinho-Truswell, zoologist at the University of Sydney. "The bow and arrow is probably the first example of automation," he wrote. "When people made their first bow towards the end of the Stone Age, the task of the technology was to throw a spear on a very simple device. Once the arrow was knocked and the string pulled, the bow was autonomous, firing that little spear straight ahead and more evenly than the human muscles ever could.

It's a provocative argument, and Martinho-Truswell was quick to note the last in a long line of this is-what-makes-us-different-from-the-animals Distinctions. I think it is a useful tool to explain the unique dominance of humanity through the global food chain, as a product of a) our unique intelligence and b) the universal urge of all organisms to find ways to maximize their profits energy investment.

"When you think about what a reproducing organism will do under natural selection," Martinho-Turswell said, "he will seek to maximize the impact he can achieve through minimal investment. So you win the evolutionary game. Once we had the mental faculties to create systems that could do things for us, it's not surprising that we completely interfered with this paradigm and wanted to automate everything we could. "

Many animals use tools – even these zoologists would call them unintelligent, like sea urchins, which use tools despite the lack of a brain. But even the smartest animals that do – gorillas that use a certain part of a hive to enjoy termites, for example, or Caledonian crows that make sticks into hook tools for examining larvae – do not make their innovations automatic systems. As a result, gorillas still spend about half of their time finding enough food to stay alive, while we spend about ten percent of our time on people living in "layers on layers of automated systems."

Simply put, automation is an evolutionary advantage. "If you can use the resources at your disposal and have some sort of silver bullet that gives radically better efficiency to what you get back, this will be an evolutionary dynamite," Martinho-Truswell said. "They will do a fantastic job, as we did. Our closest relatives are all endangered by us. "And our ability to automate.

He went so far as to suggest that automation could be a universal biological impulse if a species were intelligent enough to begin with.

We started to clear up the basic physics of the world around us, and we could say we set up an object to toast another object, and it would do the same thing every time, "said Martinho-Truswell. "Then you can combine that consistent thinking and our intelligence with the almost universal endeavor to make life as conservative as possible. And you arrive very quickly – let's build things that will work for us. "

" I do not think that's unique to humans except because people are uniquely intelligent right now on the planet, "he said. If there was another radically intelligent species on an island that was similarly crowded, then they too would automate. "It's too obvious a solution to the problem of getting the job done without wasting energy to be unique."

"I think it's unique to us right now."


Whatever the reason Automation manifests itself in cultures around the globe.

"I have found evidence of similar" science fiction "in ancient India and China, but so much has been lost or destroyed," Mayor said. "We have the benefit of a classical Greco-Roman text and works of art that have survived for millennia, but mythological thought experiments on techno-miracles could have originated in many pre-modern cultures." For example: Ancient Hindu and Sanskrit texts describe a flying palace, known as "Vimana," which was controlled by thought. And in the 7th century AD, the Chinese Buddhist monk Daoxuan described "a fabulous monastery defended by machines in the form of humans and animals."

This is further proof of a universal impetus for automation. It's no wonder that the Greeks would then cheer our labor-saving automatic ingenuity – it could have given us the advantage over the beasts. Automation, the sacred ability of humanity.

Not until the Middle Ages Dihal, we began to fear humans from automated machines as forces that could run dangerously amok, and not just as industrial agents to eliminate jobs, our very humanity. It begins, she notes, when automation threatened the livelihoods of the educated and upper classes. (Mayor, meanwhile, says the fear that automation is being used as a tool by tyrants seems to be early on, and people were almost ambiguous in their implications as long as we were amazed by them.) [19659021] "In the last 1,000 For years, the wisest thing, if you came across a pound of butter, was to eat the whole thing, evolutionarily. Today, that's going to be obesity.

Perhaps we can interpret some of these early myths as celebrating our ability to automate and as an implicit assumption that we would go further. And that would free us from the drudgery.

"In a remarkable passage, Aristotle relied on the myth of Hephaestus' fantastic creations to take into account the social and economic implications, if only ancient Athens possessed similar automatic objects, such as looms that could weave on itself, and Lyres this could be self-acting, "Dihal told me. "He suggested that automation would abolish slavery." (Although Aristotle, of course, had slaves.)

Martinho-Truswell said that we might even automate the past if this is beneficial to the survival of our species. "For the last 1,000,000 years, the wisest thing you can do, if you find a pound of butter, is to eat the whole thing, evolutionarily," he said. "That means obesity today. Similarly, the stimulus to automation may have gone beyond evolutionary benefits and may actually be destructive in its current environment. "

This" positive light "that Dihal describes has largely disappeared today, best of all, suspicion. Our confidence in the automation of our tools has darkened after decades of use by a few of the working class – today's dwindling gods – to reduce jobs, increase efficiency, consolidate capital, and ultimately control Hence the fear when, in the 1940s, Delmar Harder was finally referred to as "automation" at Ford – as replacing the robotization of union jobs and displacing thousands out of the middle class.

Automation will certainly not be far-reaching universal, wondrous benefits. The people who are used to want that the robots accept our jobs to see the emergence of the AI. It was not exaggerating to say one of our founding myths.

"The hope of being released from work," said Dihal, "to have a life of ease and leisure – it is the oldest hope associated with artificial intelligence. "


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