THE REAL HISTORY OF ARTIFICIAL BEINGS
The very earliest clocks told time in terms of how long it took flowing water to fill or empty a vessel. But water clocks were inaccu- rate and were replaced by mechanical versions. In Europe, these first appeared around the thirteenth century, driven by falling weights built into tall towers; for instance, at Westminster Abbey.
Portable timepieces needed a different power source. The Ger- man locksmith Peter Henlein made the first recorded spring-driven clock in 1502.This wasn’t yet a complete solution, because as a spring uncoils,its force decreases, the clock hands move slower, and the clock loses time. It required further effort to develop clockwork, the gears and other components that slowly draw off the power of a coiled spring and regulate a clock’s steady tick-tock.
By the eighteenth century, clockmakers and watchmakers were using a well-developed spring-power technology to make elaborate timepieces. These artisans began creating animated toys and other machines, and from there it was only a step to build the most intricate mechanical devices yet made, humanlike automatons.
Although these automata were made to entertain, and to display the skill of the clockmaker, they also represented a philosophical posi- tion that had been in the air since it was expressed by the great seven- teenth-century thinker René Descartes. After stating his famous dictum “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes went on to conclude that animals and humans are nothing more than machines that operate by mechanical principles. Humans, however, have a dual nature because they also have “rational souls” that make them unique among living things; it is why humans alone can say,“I think, therefore I am.”
Descartes’s dualism leads to the conclusion that except for the act of reason, everything about a human being is mechanical. Indeed, in his Discourse on Method, he wrote, “For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words, and even utters words which correspond to bodily actions . . . (e.g., if you touch it in one spot it asks what you want of it.. . . )” although he did not believe such a machine could be made to carry on a meaningful conversation; that is, it would fail the Turing test.
Descartes might even have acted on the idea that a biological body is a machine; there is some evidence that he had plans to make