Edgar Allen Poe Vs The Mechanical Turk

Late in the eighteenth century, Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled his most marvelous creation: a robotic chess player. In 1783, von Kempelen displayed his work in Paris, astonishing Benjamin Franklin.  In 1826, the machine arrived in the United States. At the time, clockwork contraptions were a relatively new technology, and like the neural networks of today, they achieved so much that, to the public, their capabilities seemed limitless. Could gears and pulleys beat the chess champion of the day?

Many suspected the machine was a hoax, and writers across the country competed to guess at the secret of the “Mechanical Turk.” One such writer was a young Edgar Allan Poe.

We find every where men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine, unconnected with human agency in its movements, and consequently, beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind. And such it would undoubtedly be, were they right in their supposition.

Excerpt from Maelzel’s Chess Player, Edgar Allan Poe, published 1836.

Poe, best known for his horror stories such as “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” also dabbled in science fiction along with mysteries that would presage Sherlock Holmes decades before sir Arthur Conan Doyle put pen to paper.

In his essay, Poe compares against Charles Babbage’s difference engine, a mechanical number cruncher of the era.

What, from the perspective of a machinist, is the difference between making sums and playing chess? From Poe’s perspective, the issue at hand was less the automated player, and more the human one. 

Arithmetical or algebraical calculations are, from their very nature, fixed and determinate. … But the case is widely different with the Chess-Player. With him there is no determinate progression. No one move in chess necessarily follows upon any one other. From no particular disposition of the men at one period of a game can we predicate their disposition at a different period… in proportion to the progress made in a game of chess, is the uncertainty of each ensuing move… It is quite certain that the operations of the Automaton are regulated by mind, and by nothing else.

Excerpt from Maelzel’s Chess Player, Edgar Allan Poe, published 1836.

In fact, Poe turned out to be correct that the Turk was not an example of artificial intelligence so much as artificial artificial intelligence. A human chess champion hid inside the box, operating the Turk by levers and keeping track of the moves on his own board. Whatever the reality behind the illusion, Poe’s assertion that machines cannot truly reason like a human in uncertain situations began a debate that would rage on for centuries. 

Next week we will travel more than hundred fifty years into the future to 1997, when a new kind of machine operating on electronic bits instead of clockwork takes the Mechanical Turk’s lie and makes it into truth.

I take requests. If you have a fictional AI and wonder how it could work, or any other topic you’d like to see me cover, mention it in the comments or on my Facebook page.

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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