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Artificial Slaves, and Their Relevance Today
Kevin LaGrandeur   Jan 23, 2013   Ethical Technology  

The idea of artificial slaves - and questions about their tractability - is present not only in the literature of modern times but also extends all the way back to ancient Greek sources; and it is present in the literature and oral history of the early modern period as well.  Aristotle is the first to discuss the uses and advantages of the artificial slave in his Politics.

There, he mentions how much better life would be if the Greeks (and for their slaves) had weaving looms, musical instruments, and other devices that were smart enough to be able to understand orders and to work by themselves.

He also highlights the idea of the slave, automatic or otherwise, as part of a distributed somatic network.  This idea of the artificial servant as a prosthetic extension of the master reappears in medieval and Renaissance stories about famous scientists.  Such medieval works as Gower’s Confessio Amantis, where Robert Grossteste is depicted creating a talking brass servant, are followed during the Renaissance by tales like Greene’s The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, which depicts Roger Bacon creating a similar artificial, humanoid slave.  In all of these instances the idea of the artificial servant is connected with an emotional paradox: the joy of self-enhancement is counterpoised with the anxiety of self-displacement that comes with distribution of agency.

In this way, the older accounts of creating artificial slaves are accounts of modernity in the making—a modernity characterized by the project of extending the self and its powers, in which the vision of the extended self is fundamentally inseparable from the vision of an attenuated self.

My new book, Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves, traces various ancient representations of artificially made humanoid servants, from their origins to their representation in selected Renaissance texts. The book is the first to concentrate exclusively on depictions of artificial humanoid servants in the literature of Shakespeare’s time and before. These representations eerily prefigure modern robots, androids, and artificially intelligent networks, and the art that is responsible for their creation blurs the edges between magic and science in a way that resonates especially with some of our modern notions of cybernetics.

In Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, for example, we meet a sixteenth-century version of a famous medieval scientist, Roger Bacon, who tries to make a talking head of bronze. This artificial head, remarkably reminiscent of the robot in twentieth century fiction, is meant to serve mundane purposes in super-normal ways. Bacon intends to have it build a defensive wall around all of England and to solve difficult mathematical and philosophical questions—similar to the way we use modern computers.

Greene’s fictional, robot-like creations appear around the same time as the homunculus, an organically-based android that emerges in the non-fictional, alchemical literature of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. Moreover, tales of the golem, an organic android that is made from inorganic material (simple earth) also reach their most elaborate form in this era.

Also, Aristotle’s focus, in his Politics, on slaves’ functions versus their physical forms (which is what gives him the idea of replacing slaves with smart machines) gives me a historical precedent for discussing how Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus depict another form of artificial servant: the networked system. Both plays present us with scientist/scholars who use their knowledge to conjure spirits that take corporeal form and that, as a group, constitute an "organic system" for accomplishing their creators' worldly ends. Indeed, in The Tempest the island itself becomes a "machine" of sorts, as Prospero uses his magical science to yoke together all life on the island into an intelligent network made of spirit and flesh, as well as the very environment, to attain his goals. Ariel, along with other artificial slaves that interface with their masters, recapitulates Aristotle’s notion of slaves as “animate” and yet “separated” parts of the master’s body. Ariel’s role also harks forth to fictional entities like the ethereal, disembodied voice of H.A.L. the computer, in 2001: A Space Odyssey: both the voice and Ariel’s physical presence represent that part of a network which provides a “user interface” for communicating with its master/programmer.

My book’s thesis is that these fictional, artificial servants embody at once the ambitions of the scientific wizards who make them and society’s perception of the dangers of those ambitions. Creations made by natural philosophers like Robert Greene’s character Friar Bacon, or by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (I discuss Mephistopheles as the interface for a hidden, functional network of demons), or by Shakespeare’s Prospero—whether those creations are physically or functionally humanoid—represent their makers’ dreams of dominance over nature, over their own destiny, and, indirectly, over other humans.

These creations reflect the rising individualism and the cultural dangers represented by Humanism in the Renaissance and of its proponents, like Marsilio Ficino—and of those scientific thinkers, such as Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa, whom he influenced.

But they also represent a paradox: the self-enhancement promised by intelligent slave-systems is counterpoised with the threat of self-displacement or self-diminution that comes with distribution of agency to these artificial agents, and this is still relevant today. The chief trait of the instruments of the fictional scientists above is their difficulty in controlling them, and the consequent peril that the master-slave relationship might be reversed.

So these fictional creations are also embodiments of, or vessels for, the cultural fears triggered by independent, experimental thinkers—the type of thinkers from whom our modern cyberneticists directly descend. I go into more depth about this last point in the final chapter of my book, which touches upon connections between tales of the Early Modern artificial servants and the fears and hopes expressed in modern literature about networked systems and humanoid automata.

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Images: deviantart

IEET Fellow Kevin LaGrandeur is a Faculty Member at the New York Institute of Technology. He specializes in the areas of technology and culture, digital culture, philosophy and literature.


Great post! I look forward to reading your fascinating book.

I was curious if any thing you reviewed in the premodern literature or were aware of from the same period dealt with what I’ll call “the Creator’s dilemma” the idea that if you build a machine that crosses a threshold of intelligence it would require free will which thereby entails that you can no longer ethically treat it as an instrument?

Rick, first, thanks for your kind words.  As for your question, in the Western cultures of the past there is little evidence of the dilemma you mention because of the way they rationalized slavery.  The majority took Aristotle’s view that some intelligent beings were naturally subservient to others (I.e., Aristotle’s idea of the natural slave).  Interestingly, they mostly used the power of language to distinguish this: the Greeks, for example, thought anyone who didn’t speak Greek was subhuman; the jewish doctrine on the golem specified its subhuman status rested on the fact that first, it wasnt very intellilgent, second, it was manmade, and most important, it was mute.  This viewpoint of artificially intelligent things was common.  And yes, I discuss this in my book!

Assuming the growing trend in automation displacing the Human workforce and it’s inefficiencies, growing mass unemployment, and yet also contemplating the vast benefits in employing Humanoid robots to cater for our social needs, social care and petty errands and duties also, perhaps we should be more worried about becoming too reliant?

And I guess this inherent Human laziness is apparent even now with lack of any real forward thinking about the near future consequences of robots utilised at large in society?

The master/Slave relationship sounds ugly, and just when you thought Human ethics has risen above this regressive thinking.. whoops! here we go again?

The rational view would seem to be, as long as robots remain machines and are not Self-reflexive to the level of achieving Human like consciousness, then they may remain machines, they will have no feelings to hurt, and no rights to worry about?

Yet Humans are fated to create the near perfect duplicate of Human like levels of intelligence and learning, and the manifestation of some “ghost in the machine” is not an entire impossibility, (in the purely non-mystical sense, a Self-reflexive intelligent system may well simulate an entity so well as to easily pass the Turing test and much farther beyond?)

I would say also that Free will or “will to action” can be easily programmed for a robot or AI machine without need for any reference to “freedom” at all? Such is with the aged argument and debate concerning Humans anyhow. Meaning, I would say that Self-reflexivity is of higher priority for declaring “Robots rights” than any illusions of Free will that may appear as consequence of this Self-reflexivity?

iRobot contemplates all of these ethical issues and prejudices.

Scenario 1. Robots enter society on a means tested and economically affordable and efficient manner, permitting Humans to acclimatise to relinquishing responsibilities and duties, and still yet deal with their own prejudices?

Scenario 2. Robots hit the consumer market with full force, and as your article highlights, Humans are not yet ready to deal with lack of responsibilities, overcoming their own laziness and boredom, and the result is increase in robot prejudice?

I hope Robots remain machines.. at least for the greater part of the earlier era, for the sake of all parties?


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