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You’re Having A Laugh – Part Two

The great chess automaton of 1769

If the doom mongers are to be believed, the successful harnessing of artificial intelligence poses the biggest threat to employment prospects. Whether that will ever happen or whether some of the promised benefits of artificial intelligence will manifest themselves in my lifetime, only time will tell.

The game of Chess has been at the forefront of the battle for supremacy between man and machine, principally because its moves are regulated by a number of rules and it is a game of strategy and anticipation, testing the competitors’ ability to think and plan. World chess champion, Gary Kasparov, suffered a defeat in 1997 at the hands of Deep Blue, although there were some doubts expressed as to whether conditions were fair for both contestants. These days with increased computational power and more sophisticated programming, computers can regularly defeat even the strongest chess player.

The creation of machines to ape the behaviour of living creatures particularly fascinated the so-called Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century and some astonishing examples have survives to this day. But the machine which really swept Europe by storm was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess automaton, created in 1769. By all accounts it was a splendid affair, consisting of a large wooden box stuffed full of wiring and gears, atop of which was a carved figure wearing, for exotic effect, Turkish clothes. When the mechanism was wound up, the Turk, as the chap was dubbed, would play chess against all comers. It would move pieces on its own, develop strategy and was able to react to the moves of its opponent, rather than just play in a predetermined way, irrespective of the circumstances. It was a remarkably successful player and regularly overcame opponents. Von Kempelen was moved to call it a thinking machine.

Von Kempelen took the automaton on tour around the courts and salons of Europe, challenging the great and good to pit their wits against the machine. The automaton rarely lost. One of its most famous scalps was that of Benjamin Franklin. In 1790, thinking twenty years was a pretty good run, von Kempelen dismantled the machine but on his death in 1805 his family sold it on to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who put it back together again and took it out on the road. He even took it to America in 1826. The automaton regularly won its matches.

There was intense speculation as to how the machine operated and secured its remarkable run of successes. To quell the obvious thought that there was someone in the box of trick, von Kempelen would ostentatiously open up the box to reveal its innards before each show. The mystery piqued the interest of Edgar Allan Poe who after witnessing a performance, wrote an article in which he claimed that there was someone in the figure of the Turk, rather than the box. He was almost right.

The truth came out on 6th February 1837 in the Philadelphia National Gazette Literary Register. Von Kempelen and Maelzel had employed champion chess masters who were secreted in the part of the box where the Turk came out. A series of sliding panels and a rolling chair hid them from view whilst the innards of the box were being displayed but once the box was shut, they moved back into the guts of the box. The chess masters could control the arms and hands of the automaton to ape their own hand movements and the use of magnetic chess pieces allowed them to see what was going on above their heads.

Clever, really.

Filed under: Culture, History Tagged: Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, Benjamin Franklin, Deep Blue, Edgar Allan Poe, Gary Kasparove, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, man versus machine, The great chess automaton, The Turk

This post first appeared on Windowthroughtime | A Wry View Of Life For The World-weary, please read the originial post: here

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You’re Having A Laugh – Part Two


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