Historian deconstructs robot fascination

UMSL historian Minsoo Kang

Minsoo Kang, associate professor of history at UMSL, wrote "Sublime Dreams of Living Machines," which is due out Feb. 28 on Harvard University Press.

Humans’ love affair with the automaton, better known as the robot, dates back to before the everyday use of electricity in civilization. But the early machines that dominated the Western imagination hardly resembled the robots of today. In “Sublime Dreams of Living Machines,” University of Missouri–St. Louis historian Minsoo Kang explores early automata and human reaction to them.

From the automaton’s first appearance in ancient myths through the introduction of the living machine in the Industrial Age, Kang’s book tracks several centuries of robots in Europe. “Sublime Dreams of Living Machines” is due out Feb. 28 on Harvard University Press. While awaiting its release, UMSL News caught up with Kang, associate professor of history, to discuss, among other things, a defecating duck and why robots might freak us out a little.

How did you become interested in early automata?

It was kind of accidental. I went to graduate school to become a historian of the Enlightenment. I was doing a lot of heavy reading of intellectual history of the 18th century. I kept running across this name, Jacques de Vaucanson, which I had never heard of before. What was weird was that some of the greatest geniuses of the 18th century – people like Voltaire and Diderot and La Mettrie – kept saying this is the guy that everybody’s going to remember as a great genius of our century. I was like, “Who the heck is Vaucanson? Was he a forgotten philosopher? A great writer?” And so on. So I looked into it and it turns out he was a mechanic – an engineer. During the 1730s, he created three automata, one of which was a flute player. A life-size statue, it had a mechanism where wind came out of its mouth and it actually played a real flute. And people went crazy over it. So over the next year, he produced two more. One was a drum and fife player and the third was the most-famous of them all, which is the so-called ‘defecating duck.’ It was a little duck that could move its wings and swim around and really act like a duck. You could put food in its mouth and a couple minutes later these pellets came out the other end. And Voltaire said that is what his age was going to be remembered by: Vaucanson’s duck. These are what we could consider interesting toys. But scientists were saying this is just absolutely marvelous and wonderful. So why did intellectuals go crazy over this? I really thought I had something there.

So why isn’t Vaucanson remembered in history as prominently as his contemporaries believed?

I got curious about that too. I scoured writings that might mention him in the course of the rest of the 18th into the 19th century. What I found out is that he was famous all throughout the 19th century. The very last mention of his name that I found where the author mentions him without explaining who he is – because he assumes the reader knows who he is – was an early 20th century book on psychology. My theory is that after World War I, machines became something much scarier because of the high-tech warfare. The people who made dainty, beautiful machines sort of fell out of favor. They faded into obscurity. But (Vaucanson is) sort of being revived. Historians are talking more about him. What’s also interesting is that in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, “Mason & Dixon,” Vaucanson’s duck is actually one of the characters in that novel. As we continue to talk about our own time’s obsession with artificial intelligence and robotics and so on, his name may become better known.

But the book is about more than Vaucanson, right?

Yeah. What happened was I figured for me to properly understand these automata, I would have to look at automata in the age before and after. So I did something that every graduate student is direly warned not to do, which is to pick a vast topic. Well, I just couldn’t do it. My story actually starts in Ancient Greece and ends in the 1930s. I came out with a nice explanation as to why they were so interested in automata. I realized that deep within the Western psyche, there is this absolute innate fascination with artificial objects that seems to mimic living creatures. Once I became obsessed with this, I began to see the automaton everywhere – in ancient times, in the Middle Ages and then after the Enlightenment, during the 19th century and even today.

Why do you think humans are so fascinated or disturbed – or both – by automata?

The way the human mind works, we generally tend to divide everything into binary oppositions – night or day, male or female, high or low, fast or slow and so on. That’s the most rudimentary way in which we organize reality even though we know it’s not one or the other, right? Like day or night. It’s not day and then bam, automatically it’s night. You go through a transitional process. But we need to be able to say something. You know, ‘When did you do this?’ You have to be able to say day or night, right? But every once in a while, we see something that so clearly disrupts that binary opposition that it causes almost a shock to our system. For instance, when there’s a solar eclipse, that binary opposition between day and night is disrupted and we find it really, really disturbing and fascinating at the same time. A primitive society might find it traumatic. “Is the world coming to an end?” But in our society, even though we know what it is, we still find it very interesting. What the automaton does is it disrupts that binary opposition. It’s a dead object that acts as if it’s alive. At its most innocuous, that disruption can be interesting. But imagine how you’d feel if you walk by a statue, which you just assumed was made of stone, and it suddenly moves. It would freak you out, right? That’s because it’s not innocuous. All the sudden you feel this violation because you assumed that was safe and in the category of the inert. But it turns out to be living. I think it’s that sense of violation of our binary opposition that is at the source of our inherent fascination as well as disturbance by it.

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