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July 2007

July 2007 - Computers

Gallery

Columns

  • EMG News:
    News of July!
  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Greening Your Computer
  • Behind the Art:
    Creating a Book in InDesign
  • Myths and Symbols:
    Inhuman Double
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Digital Evolution

    Features

  • P4S5W0RD5
  • The Fairies' Harp Walkthrough
  • 1001 Wonderlands: Alternate Reality Games

    Fiction

  • Fiction: Game Over?
  • Fiction: Computerized Frustration
  • Fiction: Crashing
  • Fiction: My Computers

    Reviews

  • Movie: Men in White


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  • Inhuman Double
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    One could wonder: what place have such modern and futuristic elements as computers and robots in a column devoted to symbols? Symbols are ancient things, aren't they?

    Well, yes and no.

    Most of the symbols we deal with are, indeed, passed down from centuries, if not millennia, and are so ingrained in our psyche that we don't even have to consciously think about them. But some modern objects have had such a strong presence in recent art and thought (be it in speculative writing, figurative arts, cinema, or philosophy and psychology), to have taken a symbolic value by sheer strength.

    Let's think a moment about computers, for instance: powerful machines able to compute and reach exact results for complex problems in an infinitesimal fraction of the time we would need. And even more, machines that could learn and develop, to the point that they might "awaken" and reach self- awareness.

    This is all well and good, and if something went wrong? Perfect logic and no empathy—what could be the result?

    We see it in scores of movies and science fiction works, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix trilogy, where humans are used as power sources for computers.

    In fiction, computers are often seen as humanity's dark twin and many speculative authors have used and analyzed them trying to give an answer to the age-old question: what makes a human being, human? As well as: is what we perceive as reality, in fact real?

    This kind of speculation is not limited to fiction, though. There are philosophers theorizing that all we experience as reality is in fact an extremely complex computer simulation.

    And what if the computers were already here, posing as humans? All possibilities and dangers get even more pressing and exciting if we take into consideration robots that, after all, are just moving computers.

    The word robot appeared the first time in a theatrical play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, but the idea of robot is an ancient one, millennia older than computers.

    In Greek myth the god Hephaestus was said to have built and animated golden and silver maidservants who staffed his residence.

    In the thirteenth century, the Dominican friar Albert the Great(1) was renowned as a natural magician (an ancient expression which nowadays would be accurately translated as experimental scientist).

    Legend has it that Albert built an automaton made of metal, leather, wood, wax, and glass; it was able to speak and (always according to the legend) worked as a servant in the Dominican convent in where Albert lived in Cologne. Albert himself was the first to use the word android. He applied it to living beings made by man through alchemical processes (2).

    The first documented robot was a mechanical knight designed by Leonardo da Vinci (no surprises here) around 1495. The knight, from what we gather from the drawings, would have been able to move its arms, hands, and head and even produce sounds, thanks to a percussion system placed in its chest. It probably was to provide entertainment in the celebrations held in the Milan court of the Sforzas. It is unknown, though, if it was ever built.

    Possibly the most famous of all the early robots was the Chess Player built by Baron von Kempelen in 1769. The Chess Player, an automaton dressed in the guise of a Turk, toured Europe and the United States displaying its uncanny mastery of chess.

    Sadly, although Baron Kempelen's works gave indeed a strong contribution to early robotics(3) his studies were not as advanced as he would have liked his contemporaries to believe. The Chess Player did not play on its own, in the course of a century it was operated by a series of human players whose names are, by now, mostly known(4). The original robot was destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1854.

    The Prague Golem is by many counted among the forerunners of modern robots (sometimes together with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's monster).

    According to legend, in a time of danger for the Jewish community of Prague, Rabbi Jehuda Loew, the Maharal(5), built out of clay and animated by mystic knowledge a giant who would act as the protector of the community.

    The Golem, though, escaped control, so the rabbi deactivated it and hid it in the attic of the Altneushul where it is said to rest still.

    In her 1991 cyberpunk novel He, She and It, Marge Piercy skilfully and thoughtfully entwines the story of the Prague golem with the parallel story of Yod, a futuristic cyborg built for much the same purpose. A weapon with a conscience, as he himself says, Yod deliberately chooses to die, taking with him his creator and the lab where he was made, so that no other cyborgs like him could be built.

    Yod is not the first, though. Before him, Asimov's Bicentennial Man decided to renounce his mechanical immortality, seeing death as a way to fully share what is to be human.

    As in Yod's case, boundaries blurry even more when, from fully mechanical robots we go to cyborgs: a mix of mechanical and organic who could range from an organic camouflage covering internal mechanisms, like Terminator to a full mechanical body housing a human brain, as we see chiefly in anime movies (and series) born from the manga Ghost in the Shell.

    What is, really, a ghost? Is it derived from an organic brain? Could machines develop a ghost of their own and become sentient, or is human thought, personality and soul just a product of electrical activity in the brain, just like electrical activity in a computer's circuits?

    And when robots and cyborgs change again, thanks to DNA splicing and cloning techniques, into replicants, where is the limit? Is Blade Runner's Roy Batty less human than us just because he was born in a vat and his life expectancy is 4 years?

    As often happened, and is likely to happen again, speculative fiction has built on old myths and ideas to make us think on issues that are becoming more and more relevant and familiar.

    This is all for this month. My column of August will be devoted to a fascinating animal, controversial both in history and in myth: the cat.

    Notes

    (1) Born around 1193, died 1280. Albert was both a theologian and a physicist, and a very influential author. Thomas Aquinas was his most famous student. Albert the Great is the patron saint of scientists.

    (2) Later alchemists would call such life forms homunculi.

    (3) This much-used scientific word derives from speculative fiction; it was created by Isaac Asimov.

    (4) Among them, in Europe: Johann Baptist Allgaier (Vienna 1809), Rabbi Aaron Alexandre and Boncourt (Paris 1818), William Lewis and Elijah Williams (London1818), Jacques-Francois Mouret (Paris 1820). In the United States the chess player was operated by William Schlumberger (aka Mulhouse) and Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint Amant.

    (5) The Maharal (1525-1609) (the title is an acronym for our teacher the Rabbi Loew in Hebrew) is an historic figure of great importance for Jewish thought, his tomb can be visited in Prague’s Jewish cemetery. ,

    Marina Bonomi
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