Minsoo Kang


On his book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination

Cover Interview of April 12, 2011

The wide angle

A major aspect of the West’s fascination with the automaton is that the interest in the object is an ambivalent one.  The delight, amusement, and amazement that people experience in the face of the self-moving, life-imitating machine are mixed with a sense of unease that can be magnified into full-blown horror under certain circumstances.

In our time, scientists and engineers regularly present the latest breakthroughs in robotic and computing technology to great public approbation, but people also flock to see movies like the Terminator series and the Matrix series and TV shows like Battlestar Galactica that feature cataclysmic conflicts between machines and human beings.

I point out that there are three distinct views that can be found in contemporary culture on the fate of humanity in the age of advanced machinery, ideas that I call “inevitable conflict,” “equivalence through sentience,” and “cybernetic mergence.”

The first one, “inevitable conflict,” features the familiar prophesy of the coming war with robots.  The history of this idea actually goes back at least to the mid-nineteenth century.  Reading Darwin’s Origin of Species gave the Victorian writer Samuel Butler terrifying visions of machines evolving to challenge their creators.

The second view, “equivalence through sentience,” does not see such a conflict as inevitable as it imagines the possibility of peaceful co-existence in the future of humans and artificial creatures that have been granted the rights and dignity of conscious beings (perhaps the best way to prevent a destructive confrontation).

And the third view, “cybernetic mergence,” posits that in the future humans will be using so many artificial implants and will be capable of interfacing so seamlessly with intelligent machines that the very distinction between what is natural and artificial will become meaningless.

These ideas are only the latest expressions of what I believe is a much more fundamental and visceral ambivalence we feel before the automaton.

When humans beings organize reality into a coherent worldview, we tend to divide everything into a series of opposing binaries, like day–night, light–dark, inside–outside, man–woman, adult–child.  But it can be highly disturbing when an entity appears, or an event occurs, that disrupts such distinctions—e.g., a solar eclipse violates the day–night binary, a hermaphrodite the man–woman binary.

One such fundamental distinction that we take for granted is the clear difference between living beings and dead objects.  The automaton, as an artificial thing that acts as if it were alive, seems to violate that distinction.

I explore this issue in the first chapter of my book—the automaton as an essentially fascinating and disturbing object for its ability to traverse the boundary line between the worlds of the organic and the inorganic, the natural and the artificial, and the living and the dead.

I came to the subject of automata when I was in graduate school at UCLA, studying to become a historian of the Enlightenment.  While doing research on the ideas of some of the most radical thinkers of the second half of the eighteenth century, I kept coming across references to Jacques de Vaucanson, whom I had never heard of before.

What struck me immediately was the fact that some of the greatest minds of the period, including Voltaire, Diderot, La Mettrie, and Mercier, kept referring to him as a true genius of their time.  When I looked into the figure of Vaucanson, I was surprised to find out that he began his career as an automaton maker, of the flute-player, the fife-and-drum player, and the famous defecating duck.

As I then discovered that his works were a great success among intellectuals as well as the general public, I knew that I had a fascinating historical puzzle to solve.

I subsequently came up with the theory that Vaucanson’s automata were so popular because they represented the entire mechanical order of the universe, the state, and humanity that rationalist thinkers have been describing since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

So this research into Enlightenment automata opened up the entire history of the self-moving, life-imitating machine that goes back to the dawn of Western civilization and is still in progress today.  And in my research, I was fascinated by how rich and varied the entire history of automaton symbolism has been in the course of European history.

A full volume can be written on the subject of each chapter of my book.  In fact, it is my hope that my work will serve as a catalyst for other scholars.