THE REAL HISTORY OF ARTIFICIAL BEINGS
But why should a clockwork automaton not play winning chess? Although these devices far surpassed the efforts of the early Greeks, although de Vaucanson dreamt of simulating a human body with his superb mechanical systems, they lacked the crucial capacity to change their operations on the fly—which meant they could not react to external stimuli. Any definition of intelligence includes the essential ability to adapt to the environment and new situations within it.This is the critical difference between the mechanical programming of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and present-day computer op- erations, although adaptability alone is not enough to guarantee intel- ligence or consciousness.
As long as the preeminent technology remained mechanical, even with the steam engine to generate power (James Watt patented the device in 1769), it was difficult or impossible to engineer that indis- pensable flexibility. Only the advent of electrical science in the eigh- teenth century brought a versatile power source that could lead to machine intelligence and perceptual abilities. Electricity brought an- other virtue, a semimystical connection between this physical phe- nomenon and the workings of living beings, giving electricity special meaning as an energy source for human-made life.
We have known about electricity at rest, called “static electricity,” since the time of the ancient Greeks.They observed that a piece of vigorously rubbed amber attracted a small object, and indeed, the word electricity comes from elektron, the Greek word for amber. By the 1740s, scientists had accumulated enough knowledge to begin build- ing a theory of electricity. Benjamin Franklin’s idea of an electrical fluid that produced positive and negative charge was a great contribu- tion; so were new instruments such as spark generators, and the Ley- den jar, which stored electricity for use in experiments.
THE LIFE ELECTRIC
Although scientists and laypeople alike understood more and more about electricity as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries pro- gressed, they continued to regard it as a marvel. Demonstrations of its