Monday, March 04, 2002
I've just been listening to Paxman's Monday morning show. One of his guests was an author called, I think, Gaby Woods, who's written a book about automata, called 'Living Dolls'. The famous 19th-century chess-playing Turk came up. The other guests expressed amazement that (as they supposed) no-one had ever realized that a chess-player must be concealed in the mechanism. The author had nothing to add except more amazement.
Of course, a hidden human being must have been the first assumption of everyone who saw the machine. But some stage-magician trickery was performed to persuade witnesses that there was nothing but machinery inside the automaton's cabinet: doors were opened and closed, and only cogwheels were visible.
Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated by the machine and wrote a long analysis of it. If I recall it correctly, he began with a metaphysical argument that no machine could be capable of thought; he then went on to consider the mechanics of concealing a human being inside the machine and enabling him to follow the game and make the moves.
I don't think any confession by the machine's builder and its many operators has ever been found. We can be just as certain as Poe that there was a human being inside it – beginning not from his dodgy philosophy but from experience. We speak with the authority of a technology that has succeeded in creating genuine chess-playing machines after failing to do so for more than a century after the Turk.
But we have better arguments than "We succeeded in the 20th century using these methods; therefore they could not have succeeded in the 19th using any other." We also rely on the mathematical analyses, such as the demonstration of the huge numbers of states that a chess-playing machine has to have, and the speed of operation that is inescapably needed. We're entitled to say that not only was no such machine ever built with gearwheels, but it never could be.
The seeming achievements of the machine were an affront to Poe's desperate rationality. He could not stand the thought that the real world might be as frighteningly inexplicable and deceptive as the world of his stories. He deployed massive reasoning against the impossible eruption of a thinking machine into the world; he satisfied himself that he had triumphed as overwhelmingly as his fictitious detective Auguste Dupin triumphed over the eruption of crime into that world.
Message written in the dust on the back of a van: "I wish my bitch was as dirty as this!"