Minsoo Kang


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

Cover Interview of April 13, 2011


The fascination with the automaton in the West can be described as an obsession in that it is persistent, repetitive, and charged with powerful and contradictory emotions.  And the best way to dissolve the power of an obsession is to get to the bottom of its origin and essence as well to understand how it has affected the lives of those who have lived under its sway.

When I was asked how I felt as I was watched Watson beat its human competitors on Jeopardy!, whether I was concerned or fascinated, I answered that I felt both.  And I imagine that most people had such double reactions as well.

In the book I have tried to account for why we feel such contradictory emotions when we encounter the self-moving, life-imitating machine—amusement, delight, and wonder, as well as anxiety and horror.

And I show how the interplay of such feelings were articulated in very different ways throughout European history—from the concern over legitimate and diabolical magic in the Middle Ages, the question of human beings as machines or not in the Enlightenment, and the vision of human mechanization as that of both empowerment as well as emasculation in the modern era.

When people talk about what will become of humanity in the age of intelligent machinery, they speak of future events as if they are already beyond our control.  As if the destructive confrontation with autonomous machines, for instance, will happen to us no matter what we do.

It is my highest hope that a general history of humanity’s attitude toward the automaton will inspire people to see that the future can be made according to how we decide to deal with our own emotional attitudes toward our fast-growing creations.

It is not too late for us to decide what kind of a future we want to have with our artificial offspring—and start making decisions that will bring about such a future.  The first step toward gaining that control is to understand the historical nature of the millennia-long dream of living machines.

© 2011 Minsoo Kang