THE REAL HISTORY OF ARTIFICIAL BEINGS
However, it took time and a degree of controversy before it was generally accepted that electricity was not a kind of “life force” as Galvani had supposed.Volta himself described his battery as an elec- trical organ, because its stack of disks resembled the columnlike stack of biological cells that gave the torpedo fish its electrical powers.The supposed connection between animal vitality and electricity lingered for a time, and although the connection was scientifically disproved, the symbolic meaning of electricity as a vitalizing force remains. Elec- tricity is the right choice to give artificial beings their motive power, the power to act, and conceptual power, the power to think.
Electricity has another special value.We now know that the neu- ral signals that control the body, carry sensory information, and are related to thought itself, consist of electrical impulses sent from nerve cell to nerve cell.This is not a purely electrical phenomenon because the impulses are produced and passed on by chemical means, but neural activity has a strong electrical component, which is why it is possible to create physical interfaces between a living nervous system and electronic devices.
It would be a long time, however, before electricity could ani- mate artificial beings and their brains, or electronic devices could be connected to human neurons.A whole civilization could not run on batteries alone.The broad use of electricity required the discovery of a new principle, the law of electromagnetic induction, which the En- glish physicist Michael Faraday found in 1831.This discovery led to the construction of electrical generators that could make vast amounts of power, electric motors, and every other kind of electric device.
With widespread use, electricity drove the next wave of technol- ogy to animate artificial beings and gave the best hope to replicate human intelligence and even consciousness. Remarkably, the simplest possible electrical device, the humble on-off switch (one of which Frankenstein threw to animate his creature in the 1931 film) is the key to intelligent creatures, because such switches—banked in enor- mous quantities and operating at unimaginable speeds—are the heart of a digital computer.The path to that realization began thousands of years ago with the first machines that dealt with counting and num-