Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chess & Mind

I recently started learning something new: 
The Lewis Chessmen. 

I never played it, I didn't know anyone who played it, and my total exposure to chess came from books and films in which people played chess (see: Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fresh, The Lymond Chronicles (especially Pawn in Frankincense), The Americans, Cairo Time, WarGames, The West Wing, etc.). In the cultural artifacts that introduced me to the game, it was always heralded as something really hard. When a character plays chess in a story, it tells the audience that the person (Fresh, Jed Bartlet, or Francis Crawford) playing is always several steps ahead of the people around them. Chess players think ahead, they can strategize, they can "see the whole board." And the mathematical nature of chess, especially (so I'm told) at its highest levels, lends itself to computational technology. (I vividly remember the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup.) 

But I confess that I'm confused about how and why chess became a yardstick for intelligence and, in some cases, for humanity, insofar as "human intelligence" is a proxy for what makes us uniquely human. Humans have been building calculating machines for millennia--even before chess was invented. Why is it that the element of human intelligence that is the *easiest* to reproduce with machinery became associated with chess, and used as a marker for intelligence itself? When did this start to happen? And what does this reveal about historical theories of mind and cognition--have they changed sufficiently over the past centuries to reveal any changes in terms of the importance chess as a measure of intellectual capability?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Robots from Days Gone By

Amazing automata from ye olden times have been cropping up everywhere recently! The New York Times recently ran an article about the creations of R. J. Wensley, a robotics engineer and inventor from the first half of the 20th century.* And then the folks at Colossal got excited about Simon Schaeffer's recent (and fabulous) BBC documentary, and a few of the 18th century automata that he profiles. One of these, L'écrivain, is from the workshop of Pierre & Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz. Adelheid Voskuhl has a recent piece in Slate about the importance of the Jaquet-Droz and other Enlightenment
automata.Voskuhl's argument, based on her recent (and fabulous) book Androids in the Enlightenment, is that these luxury objects actually modeled new forms of civic engagement and social behavior by performing affective practices that were important to bourgeois and aristocratic Enlightenment culture. These automata, especially the piano-playing women that Voskuhl focuses on in her book, are conceptually similar to the 16th century praying monk, commissioned by King Charles V of Spain, that demonstrated  proper devotional practice, and to the imaginary figures from the Alabaster Chamber in the 12th-century Roman de Troie, which enacted and enforced courtly behavior.

* While I'm always happy to see Leonardo get name-checked, esp. in relation to early automata, it goes without saying that the *entire point of this blog* is to make it clear that these objects were imagined and built well before the fifteenth century.