The Hoax that Inspired AI: The Mechanical Turk

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Artificial Intelligence. These two words spark a variety of emotions in today’s culture. For many, they flicker fear: fear of lost jobs, greater dependence on technology, and even fears spurred by science-fiction films imagining a future of robot overlords. Some members of the population view artificial intelligence with hopeful anticipation. They envision a world of greater relaxation spent pursuing projects of cultural and artistic significance free from the more mundane aspects of life on earth. Whichever vision you prefer, AI has changed daily life and appears to be shaping life for generations to come.

Despite the plethora of views, most remain unaware of the hoax that inspired AI over 200 years ago.

As with all great stories, ours will begin in an 18th century palace. Empress Maria Theresa, ruler of Austria, appreciated a good magician. On frequent occasions, she invited only the best and brightest of the trade to entertain in her court. It was in Austria’s Schonbrunn Palace, in 1770, that yet another illusionist awed his observers. Yet, one audience member wasn’t impressed. Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, an inventor specializing in physics, hydraulics, and mechanics, knew he could do better and he told the Empress so. Empress Maria gave the Baron six months to invent a device that could top any magician’s act (Garfinkel and Grunspan 36). Kempelen took the challenge, creating a device he claimed could beat any of the best human chess masters in the world (Garfinkel and Grunspan 36).

As a modern observer, let’s take a step back. Machines that play chess are not uncommon to us, but the year was 1770, and digital computers of complex operation had not yet been invented.

When Baron Wolfgang introduced his device, he convinced the world that the device could play chess and respond to an unpredictable human using only mechanical means.

His contraption used a variety of gears, pulleys, hydraulics, and a simple crank (“Meet the Mechanical Turk…”).

The device involved a desk of sorts, behind which sat a wooden man in oriential dress. Under the desk was housed all of the mechanics. Kempelen went to great lengths to illustrate that his device was true to his claim. He always began a performance by opening small doors in the desk showing the opponent his device’s inner workings, convincing them it was in fact operated solely by mechanical means (Walter, “The Mechanical Turk…”). Baron Wolfgang called his device the Automaton Chess Player (Eschner, “Debunking the Mechanical…”), later it came to be known as the “Mechanical Turk.”

Truth be told, the device impressed the Empress and baffled nearly every opponent it played.

The Mechanical Turk was good, almost too good.

Kempelen and its later owner, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (Fourtane, “The Turk…”), took the Chess Player on a worldwide tour where it beat US ambassador Benjamin Franklin and poet Edgar Allen Poe (Garfinkel and Grunspan 36). Even Napoleon Bonaparte played the Mechanical Turk. He attempted a number of illegal moves and the Turk responded by moving the pieces back to their original locations. Eventually, the Turk had enough of Napoleon’s cheats and swept every piece from the board (Garfinkel and Grunspan 36).

The technology Kempelen claimed to have invented, “a thinking machine,” was unbelievable. As confused as many were, most refused to believe that the Mechanical Turk was truly operating by itself. Many believed that the device was operated by a human, but nobody could figure out how it was operated. A variety of theories abounded. Some believed that it was operated by thin wires and strong magnets from a distance, a trained monkey, or even evil spirits (“The Mechanical Turk: AI…”). Edgar Allen Poe personally believed that it worked via a small human who crawled into the body of the wooden Turk (Eschner, “Debunking the Mechanical…”).

Although the real operation of the Chess Player was a marvel of hidden engineering, it was indeed a hoax. A human operator was hidden inside the device. The Museum of Hoaxes reports on the real “magic:”

A series of sliding panels and a rolling chair allowed the automaton’s operator to hide while the interior of the machine was being displayed. The operator then controlled the Turk by means of a ‘pantograph’ device that synchronized his arm movements with those of the wooden Turk. Magnetic chess pieces allowed him to know what pieces were being moved on the board above his head (Museum of Hoaxes as quoted in Eschner, “Debunking the Mechanical…”).

After befuddling and confounding many around the world over the course of 84 years, the Mechanical Turk was lost during a fire in the Chinese Museum of Philadelphia in 1854 (Fourtane, “The Turk…”).

Although the chess playing Mechanical Turk was a hoax and an illusion, many were inspired by the idea.

Edgar Allen Poe was inspired to write his own hoax and detective stories, “most famously the Balloon-Hoax of 1844, in which he wrote a series of fictionalized newspaper articles about a three-day trans-Atlantic balloon flight” (Eschner, “Debunking the Mechanical…”).

One man, Charles Babbage, was also inspired by the Turk. Babbage was an early computer scientist, creating the Analytical Engine which was really the first general purpose computer (Walter, “The Mechanical Turk…”). Although quick to call the device a hoax — after he was beaten twice by the Mechanical Turk — he envisioned a future where a real device could beat a human chess player (Walter, “The Mechanical Turk…”).

His dream saw reality in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world-chess master Garry Kasparov (Greenemeier, “20 Years after…”).

The Mechanical Turk wasn’t artificial intelligence, but it sparked the thought for the first time. What if a device could mimic human thought? What would that device do? How would that device function? These are questions still being answered today.

In 2005 Amazon honored the legacy of the Mechanical Turk, by naming its new service after the device that sparked artificial intelligence (Schwartz, “Untold History…”). As Amazon grew, it realized it needed mundane tasks completed that, strangely, could not be completed by a computer. Just like the Turk was operated by a human appearing as a mechanical device, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (or mTurk for short) is using humans to accomplish tasks by mimicking the appearance of a computer. Amazon Founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, calls it “artificial artificial intelligence” (Schwartz, “Untold History…”). Human operators, any human on the Internet, can be paid to accomplish tasks via mTurk. To learn more about mTurk, visit Amazon’s website. However, if you think you’ve found a sweet new gig online, consider reading The Atlantic’s 2018 article.

The future of AI is still very much uncharted, but the research looks promising.

Already, AI is creating new kinds of data that offer life-altering insights into health and life on earth. AI is making cars and roads safer and allowing humans greater time to relax and pursue projects of interest and worldwide benefit. Given AI’s impact on our world and its promise for the future, we’ll be revisiting this topic significantly on our journey through the history of computers.

The Mechanical Turk was an elaborate hoax, yet it sparked inspiration for a new kind of technology that is still altering our world and lives. The Mechanical Turk is the eleventh major milestone in the history of computing.

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