Living Dolls

An interview with the author of

Sunday 16 June 2002
repeated the following Wednesday at 2.30pm
with Natasha Mitchell

Machines or toys that chew and swallow, that flinch, that play the flute? All have been recently developed in robotic laboratories worldwide. And in one sense there?s nothing new about them ? humanoid automata have captured the popular imagination for centuries. But are they really like us ? or are we like them? Gaby Wood is the author of ?Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life?.

Natasha Mitchell: Yes, it?s the sound of a doll ? believe it or not, eating a biscuit. Hi, Natasha Mitchell here, coming to you from, yes, a toy shop. Just thought I?d take the opportunity today to relive my childhood. I tell you what, though, things have really changed in these places. Toys have become incredibly high tech, and plastic seems to rule the cubby house. Barbie?s still here ? alive and well, decked out in her frilly frocks and adventure gear, with what I?ve always argued has got to be surely a logistically impossible body. And as I?ve wandered the shelves, there are plenty of other dolls here that do any amount of things: they talk, they walk, they cry, they laugh, they wet their pants, whatever. If you?re lucky, they might even have an intellectual conversation with you.

Well, according to writer Gaby Wood, the early ancestors of these dolls are of greater social significance than you might think. There?s a serious point to all this. She?s just written a book called Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, and in it, she?s arguing that the modern day search for artificial intelligence has its origins in the fantastical creations of a bygone era ? those early dolls with clockwork innards. It?s a fascinating thesis.

Gaby Wood: I was interested in the way in fairy tales and science fiction and all sorts of things I?d been reading ? Angela Carter, for example ? toys come to life, that?s a very ancient pre-occupation, but you could only ever read it in fiction, it seemed to me. There was no history of that actually being attempted, or at least no history of people?s reactions to it. And in the fairy tales, people get scared or they get tempted, there?s some sort of Faustian element to it ? in Hoffmann?s The Sand-Man, for example ? and I suspected that that might really have been the case, if people had tried to produce these beings in history. And as it turned out, the more I read the more that did turn out to be the case. But, as in fiction, there was this parallel true history.

Natasha Mitchell: So how far back does this quest to ?animate the inanimate? go back?

Gaby Wood: It does go back very far, it goes back to the Greeks. I chose to start in the 18th century, because that?s where it really became a kind of philosophical pre-occupation. That?s where the Enlightenment philosophers actually started to discuss what a human being was, whether human beings had a soul. And those sorts of arguments somehow conflated with this quest to create the actual objects.

Natasha Mitchell: And you picked the story up with an automaton that played the flute, a musical automaton. Can you tell me that story?

Gaby Wood: There was a man called Jacques De Vaucanson, he was a Frenchman. His father had been a glovemaker, so he learned this craft, but actually what he was most interested in was making clocks, and he taught himself how to make clockwork. And he became a monk, where it was incredibly unpopular that he should make these artificial beings, because that was thought to be an atheist, God-tempting thing. And he realised, as many people did before, as Dr. Frankenstein did in fiction, that this whole pre-occupation actually treads that fine line between what is a human endeavour and what seems to be trying to ape God. So he gave up being a monk, in order to produce this creation which he dreamt about while he was delirious ? he was ill, and in a fever dreamt about making this flute player. And he drew up all these diagrams, sent them to various sorts of specialists in clock-making, and made some of the pieces himself, and when he brought them all together, there was this replica of a then-famous marble statue which could play the flute, and it was as if the marble statue had just come to life. It could, by means of a series of bellows inside it ? because the idea was not that it would just play the music like a music box would, you know, that you would have the same muscles that a human being had. So you would actually reproduce the lungs, you would reproduce the tongue, you would reproduce the lips. So for each of these parts of the human anatomy, he had some sort of piece of engineering that would replicate it. And a tune actually came out. Twelve melodies it could play, this thing, and people were amazed by it. He displayed it in the centre of Paris, Voltaire went to see it, all sorts of Enlightenment people were absolutely fascinated by this.

Natasha Mitchell: So it created a fuss on a pretty grand scale? This was all pure entertainment, though, was it? You?ve described these sorts of toys as being among the first so-called philosophical toys. And this refers back to the philosopher Descartes? musing over humans themselves, ourselves being animate machines. Where is Descartes so essential to this story of the living doll?

Gaby Wood: Descartes came before, obviously, the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who discussed it more fully. And Descartes? problem, in a way, was that he was religious, and he never said that he was giving that up. He never said that human beings didn?t have souls, but he said that human beings could actually function mechanically without them, you know, that everything that we did in our lives ? breathing, sneezing, sleeping ? had a sort of mechanical explanation for it. And so if you looked at the human body, you?d find that it was operated like a pinball machine or hydraulic; you could find a mechanical explanation for these things. That?s where he stopped short. He was very afraid of what had happened to Galileo and people who said that either God didn?t exist, or that certain things that one had always assumed were God-given weren?t absolutely necessary. And so after Descartes, many people took this up and saw that what is a soul? And then if you think about, if you do believe that human beings are purely mechanical and there?s nothing to distinguish them from machines, then why not make a machine that?s a human being? Then would the machine that you make just be the same as a human being? I mean, that?s a very scary thought. So you can see how people were absolutely terrified of the argument. But you can also see how it then actually started to coincide with the engineers? quest to build a machine.

Reading: The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeds moderation, but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed chamber unable to compose my mind to sleep.
? from Mary Shelley?s Frankenstein

Natasha Mitchell: These cute and quirky automata were incredibly anxiety-inducing as a result, weren?t they?

Gaby Wood: Absolutely. I mean, particularly with the chess machine which was built in 1769. Its creator never really meant for people to be foxed for that long. What happened was that there was a sort of object on top of a ? well, it was sitting at a cabinet, a desk, with a chess board on it, and this wooden creature would just move the chess pieces. And mechanically it was very sophisticated, because there was a person inside who was operating this arm like a puppet.

Natasha Mitchell: But no-one knew that, did they?

Gaby Wood: No-one knew, that?s right.

Natasha Mitchell: It was a hoax.

Gaby Wood: So the hoax was that you would open the cabinet and prove that there was no-one inside it, that it was just a series of trapdoors. And the inventor always said it was an illusion, but people went to see this thing and were amazed, and sort of wanted to believe that there was nobody inside it. So even on a number of occasions when it was intimated that there was someone inside it, or even when it was reported in the press that they?d seen someone getting out of it, people just refused to believe it ? because what they wanted to believe, partly, was that this was possible, and on the other hand that it was sort of too terrifying to be possible. If a machine could think, which is what chess playing involves, then who are we? What makes us human? In fact, some people came close to guessing how it really worked, but nevertheless the thing continued to tour. It toured all over Europe in the late 18th century, and in the early 19th century, it went to America for a long tour. Edgar Allen Poe wrote about it. It was credibly popular, in its way, this thing.

Natasha Mitchell: And here was an example where flesh and the machine had truly merged, perhaps the ultimate anxiety-inducing scenario.

Gaby Wood: Yes, absolutely. For instance, one of these players went mad afterwards. He was an alcoholic, but he played inside this machine and eventually gave away the secret. It was him that sold the secret for the price of a drink. And I think there?s something really tragic about that story, not that anyone can?t become an alcoholic or go mad, but the idea that he was just trapped inside this machine, and when he died, he was paralysed in all his limbs. And I thought, actually, maybe that is what represents the threat most. That this human who really gave his life over to this machine was eventually in a way taken over by it. It outlasted him.

Natasha Mitchell: What interests me are the links that you draw between some of these early clockwork creations, and the more modern quest for artificial intelligence. What do you see as being some of the most striking parallels?

Gaby Wood: Well, I think that the chess player certainly, I definitely think that?s a precursor to Deep Blue, which eventually beat Gary Kasparov ? to his great fury. And I think actually what?s changed, is that people don?t feel now that they have to have an actual human embodiment of these things. So artificial intelligence is something that can be thought about outside of a kind of casing, and that was also true of Thomas Edison, what he was attempting to do. Because when he invented the phonograph, it was just a piece of tinfoil around a cylinder, and you would crank it, and at one point he said, ?what?s amazing about the phonograph is that you and I have to pucker our lips to whistle, but the phonograph doesn?t pucker one bit?. And it was as if there was some improvement involved, you could just have this machine and it could do exactly what a human being could do, and you didn?t have to make it look like a human being. And that?s what?s happening now. There are robotics labs where extraordinary things are being done, but they?re not uncanny in the sense that they don?t really look like you or me. They look like machines. But what they can do is really surprising.


Natasha Mitchell: Now, you also had an especially interesting confrontation towards the end of writing this book. You went hunting down an actual living doll. After immersing yourself in a world of clockwork dolls and beings, you met with a woman called Tiny Doll.

Gaby Wood: Yes, I came across this family of midgets who performed in the circus and they were a great success. And when I came across this story, I felt that because they called themselves The Doll Family, that was their stage name, I thought maybe there was something in that, that actually they were the opposite of all these ?objects?, as you say, that I?d been looking at. That all along, I?d thought that these objects really, they were trying to mimic human beings, but there was no sense that they should be treated like human beings. And yet here was a family who were very much not treated like human beings most of their lives, or were at least treated like children when they were adults. There was something wrong, or disrespectful, about the way they were often treated. And yet they were quite obviously humans, and yet they called themselves dolls, and audiences who went to see them often thought that they were mechanical. There was this uncanny boundary, although it was from the other side.

Natasha Mitchell: In a sense it was the story of automota inverted.

Gaby Wood: Yes, exactly. Inverted, or perhaps seen from the inside. If you were a child, and you fantasised that your doll might come to life, what would it be like spending time with that doll? That?s in a sense the sort of fantasy that The Doll Family represents. And I feel that when I did set out to read about them, and find out as much as I could about them, I felt that perhaps that was in itself a disrespectful way of putting it, that you were ?spending time with a doll?. I also felt that they invited those comparisons by calling themselves that, so it was an interesting ? perhaps even a metaphor for this way of looking at life.

Natasha Mitchell: You also went through the great artificial intelligence laboratories of the world, and I wonder whether the people that you found there, some of the great robotics experts of this era, had spent any time reflecting on this pre-history of artificial intelligence. Had they thought about some of these crazy dolls and chess playing devices?

Gaby Wood: Well, it?s interesting, because I found two different things. When I went to MIT in the States, where what they make is incredibly sophisticated, the head of their robotics lab, Rodney Brooks, is a great expert, and in fact, has himself just written a book about this, it?s called Flesh and Machines. He knew about many of these things, but they weren?t really relevant to what he did, he felt. He introduced me to one of his colleagues, saying I was writing on 18th century robots, and they just laughed and said ?Oh, I bet they were pretty slow!? And then I went to Japan, and almost exactly the opposite thing happened. The Japanese at Waseda University in Tokyo knew all about these things. They were absolutely fascinated, and in fact, they?d replicated many of them, with the sophistication they now had. For example, this flute player they knew all about Vaucanson?s flute player in the 18th century ? they just didn?t believe it really could have happened, because they were finding it so difficult to make it now. But I was able to really see, I felt what Vaucanson might have made.

Natasha Mitchell: Well, having spent all this time contemplating the history of moving dolls and speaking robots and bionic men, etc. how now do you reflect on what it means to be human?

Gaby Wood: Well now, I?m even more confused than ever! I can see how over the centuries people have been scared. And I also feel, simultaneously, that we?re no nearer, really, to creating life artificially, because what I can see is that every time something like this was made, people thought they were nearly there.

Natasha Mitchell: Writer Gaby Wood and her new book Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life is published by Faber & Faber.

Gaby Wood
Journalist and writer

Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
Author: Gaby Wood
Publisher: Faber and Faber, London, 2002
ISBN 0-571-17879-0