THE REAL HISTORY OF ARTIFICIAL BEINGS
[a] flute player who played twelve different tunes, moving his fingers, lips and tongue, depending on the music; [a] girl who played the tambourine, [and a] mandolin player that moved his head and pretended to breathe
The flute player was the most remarkable of these, it actually played the flute by expelling air into the instrument, which struck observers as especially compelling lifelike behavior.
However, it was de Vaucanson’s synthetic duck, made in 1738, that was the talk of Europe.The duck was constructed of gold-plated copper, and contained more than 1,000 parts including a digestive tract that used tubing made of a newly discovered material—natural rubber.The copper duck could do practically everything a real duck could do except fly. It quacked, flapped its wings, drank, took in grain with a characteristic head-shake, and voided it again. (Although some of de Vaucanson’s automata were lost in the French Revolution, the duck survived in the possession of a German collector, in whose col- lection Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw it. Apparently it had fallen on hard times, because Goethe reported that “The duck was like a skeleton and had digestive problems.”)
DeVaucanson’s work foresaw present thinking about artificial be- ings. Perhaps guided by his training in anatomy and medicine, he had a sweeping aim in mind. According to a report of an address de Vaucanson gave in 1741, his hope was to construct
an automaton figure which will imitate in its movements animal func- tions, the circulation of blood, respiration, digestion, the combination of muscles, tendons, nerves . . . [de Vaucanson] claims that by means of this automaton we will be able to . . . understand the different states of health of human beings and to heal their ills.
While deVaucanson did not achieve this lofty goal, his duck was a beginning; it was equipped with openings for observing the digestive process. In his commitment to giving a complete accounting of all bodily functions including excretion, de Vaucanson also caught hold of our ambivalent fascination with life’s earthier elements. Little girls’ dolls wet their diapers and sophisticated pet robot dogs inevitably come with modes to make them lift a leg and tinkle cutely on the rug. For those of us who fear that technology is inhumanly sterile, there is