The Replacements
Robots are people, too. Sort of.

By Beth Kephart | The question is this: How modified, amplified, synthesized, and digitized can we as a people become and yet remain We, the people? We’re planting cochlear implants behind the ear to bring sound to the hearing impaired. We’re speaking of the IQ of prosthetic limbs. We’re saving lives with artificial hearts, contemplating the possibility of “hypervision,” hoping that wherever biology falls short technology will win the day. Where does it end? How does it end? What will the technology that we’ve devised conspire to do with us?

Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids
By Sidney Perkowitz Gr’67.
Joseph Henry Press, 2004. $24.95.

The quandaries surrounding the man-machine matrix are not new ones, of course. Indeed, as Sidney Perkowitz points out in his new book, Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids, Aristotle himself conjectured about the future of societies aided, abetted, and disturbed by automated labor: “If every instrument could accomplish its own work,” Perkowitz quotes the philosopher, “obeying or anticipating the will of others … if the shuttle could weave, and the pick touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not need servants, nor masters slaves.”

A professor of physics at Emory University, Perkowitz’s purpose in Digital People is manifold. In the first part of his book, he concerns himself with the question, Can machines live? He approaches that conundrum first by providing an overview of the many artificial creatures that have appeared in myths, novels, and the cinema—from Talos, the robot Hephaestus purportedly presented to King Minos of Crete, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. He then provides a chronological “history of true constructed beings,” which is briefer than the virtual history, he writes, “because successful real-life engineering is often slower than the creation of fantasies.” Perkowitz also includes insights into the animated constructs of Greek theater, the fabulous creations of Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson (who created a synthetic, gold-plated duck in 1738 that could quack, flap, drink, and chomp); the ingenious “Draughtsman-Writer” of automaton- maker Henri Maillardet; and “The Turk,” a supposed automaton (later proven to be a hoax) that took on Napoleon, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe in games of chess and miraculously beat them all. Historical novelists in search of a character would be well advised to comb these pages.

But the real heart of Perkowitz’s Part One concerns all those forces, factors, and breakthroughs—everything from artificial limbs and pacemakers to electroshocks and “digital ears”—that have laid the foundation for the emerging fields of neurorobotics and neuroprosthesis. “The key idea behind this synthesis,” Perkowitz writes:

… draws on the electrical nature of the signals in the nerve network and the brain and envisages connecting neural systems to electronic ones. Outcomes already beginning to be realized include an interface that allows a paralyzed person to manipulate a computer purely by mental control, without physical effort; hybrid neural-electronic chips, in which a living neuron and an electronic circuit mounted on the same piece of silicon communicate with each other; and the use of animal brains to control mobile bodies and robotic arms, as a step toward providing mentally controlled devices to the paralyzed.


How far can science go? How far do we want it to go? If we find a way to insert memory chips into our brains, for example, who is doing our remembering, and who have we become? Can a machine have a mind of its own, and do we want it to? Is the man-machine matrix an entirely friendly prospect? And are we any closer—despite our scientific progress—to understanding the difference between the mind and the brain (and their respective relationships to the body) than Aristotle was?

Part Two of Perkowitz’s book provides an overview of those leading thinkers, theorists, and philosophers who have addressed questions such as these. Readers are introduced to the works of Israel Rosenfeld, Roger Penrose, and Antonio Damasio, and are encouraged to consider questions such as, “What is the exact nature of the link between physical and chemical activities in the brain and each person’s internal sense of consciousness?”

Perkowitz concludes that: “The debates over mind, thought, and consciousness might continue for a long time or might never be resolved, either for ourselves or for artificial beings.”

Digital People is a helpful book—a straightforward summarization of the myth and magic, science and struggles, ideals and cautions that constitute the history of artificial beings.

Beth Kephart C’82 is a writer and frequent Gazette contributor whose latest book is Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World.

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04




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