Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Long History of A.I.

"Time is, time was, time is past," quoth the Brazen Head.
I recently had occasion to discuss medieval legends of oracular heads (brazen and other) in the context of the history of artificial intelligence. Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), according to William of Malmesbury, made an oracular head using astral science that would answer questions "yes" or "no." Gerbert asked the head a question about the circumstances of his death, but misinterpreted the head's answer, and so died anyway. It's possible that William's proximity to Wales accounts for his tale of the oracular head; previous versions of this legend suggested that Gerbert had summoned a demon, using necromancy, to question about his death, and, according to Celtic legends, the decapitated heads of one's vanquished enemy could be used as oracles.

A few centuries later, John Gower transposed elements of this story to Robert Grosseteste, the Franciscan scholar and Bishop of Lincoln. In Gower's version, Grosseteste used astral science to make a brazen head that would foretell the future; unfortunately, Grosseteste slept through the head's pronouncements. At roughly the same time (late fourteenth century), Albert the Great, Dominican scholar and Bishop of Cologne, was credited with having used astral science to make a prophetic statue. In this version, found in a text on Christian morality (Albert exemplifies wisdom), one of Albert's brethren happens upon the statue and destroys it out of fear and ignorance. And just over two hundred years later, Roger Bacon, Franciscan scholar, was immortalized in an Elizabethan play as the "conjuring friar" who used necromancy to summon a demon who forged him a brass head, and which Bacon then animated via celestial magic. Like Grosseteste, his fellow Franciscan--and his intellectual forebear--Bacon, exhausted from his unceasing labors, slept through the head's pronouncement. 

A few common strands emerge from these different stories. In all instances, the man responsible for the head was known--in his lifetime, as well as after--for surpassing wisdom and skill in astral science, and interest in scientific instruments. Furthermore, in all instances, the purpose of the head is either prophecy or a more nebulous "secrets of nature." Additionally, the knowledge that the head provides is "out there"--that the future is already written, that the secrets of nature are not secret to all, but not vouchsafed to human intellect. Finally, and this may be the most salient point, the artificial intelligence is successfully created--the head tells its secrets, but humans are too weak or foolish to understand: we display confirmation bias and cannot correctly interpret what the head tells us (Gerbert), we have weak bodies and need sleep (Grosseteste, Bacon), or others prevent us from realizing our goals due to their own ignorance and fear.