Human automata

 “I think everybody should be a machine”,

Andy Wharhol, Interview with Gene Swenson, Art News (1963).

The term human automaton refers to machines capable of imitating human characteristics such as appearance, movements, actions or even mental processes. This idea is related to devices already present in the ancient world, in civilizations like the ancient China or the Greek culture. In this latter case, references can be found not only in Greek mythology but also in the Hellenistic world, where automatons were intended as tools, toys, religious idols, or prototypes for demonstrating basic scientific principles, although never intended to equal nature: according to the Greek culture artefacts could never become as real as natural objects.

Yet, the manufacturing tradition of automata continued in the Greek world well into the Middle Ages. At that time, also in the Islamic culture, complex humanoid automata were described and built. The interest for this devices revived in the Renaissance (Leonardo’s articulated mechanical robot for the Ludovico Sforza festivities is a good example of it). Later, whith Renaissance technology and mecanicist philosophy, the idea of the human being considered as a machine gained importance. The most important contributions to this conception were made first through Descartes’ division of man into a mechanistic body and an inmaterial soul, and later by J. Offray de la Mettrie, one of the leading supporters of the metaphor of man as a machine, as well as by Vaucanson’s famous automata. La Mettrie considered that animals and humans were like mere automatons or machines and denied the existence of the soul as a substance separated from matter:

Comme une corde de Violon ou une touche de clavecin frémit et rend un son, les cordes du cerveau, frappées par les rayons sonores, ont été excitées à rendre ou à redire les mots qui les touchaient. Mais comme telle est la construction de  ce viscère, que dès qu’une fois les yeux bien formés pour I ‘optique ont reçu la peinture des objets, le  cerveau ne peut pas ne pas voir leurs images et leurs différences : de même, lorsque les signes de ces  différences ont été marqués, ou gravés dans le cerveau, l’âme en a nécessairement examiné les rapports; examen qui lui était impossible sans la découverte des signes, ou I ‘invention des langues. Dans ces temps, où I ‘Univers était presque muet,  l‘âme était à l‘égard de tous les objets, comme un  homme qui, sans avoir aucune idée des proportions, regarderait un tableau, ou une pièce de sculpture: il n’y pourrait rien distinguer; ou comme un  petit enfant (car alors I ‘âme était dans son enfance) qui, tenant dans sa main un certain nombre  de petits brins de paille ou de bois, les voit en général d’une vue vague et superficielle, sans pouvoir  les compter ni les distinguer. Mais qu’on mette  une espèce de pavillon, ou d’étendard, à cette pièce  de bois, par exemple, qu’on appelle mât, qu’on en  mette un autre à un autre pareil corps; que le premier venu se nombre par le signe 1 et le second  par le signe ou chiffre 2 ; alors cet enfant pourra les  compter, et ainsi de suite il apprendra toute I ‘arithmétique. Des qu’une figure lui paraitra égale à  une autre par son signe numératif, il conclura sans  peine que ce sont deux corps différents; que 1 et 1  font deux, que 2 et 2 font 4,* etc.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie, L’homme machine, 1747

In modern times, some artists have reinterpreted this vision: Fritz Kahn, a physician and writer of popular science books, was the responsible for the idea of several illustrations (made by others on his instructions) representing human physiology as operated by machines and depicting the body as a factory, relating it to the industry and his spaces, so common at that period of time. This link shows an animated and interactive application made in 2009 by Henning M. Lederer and based on Kahn’s poster “Man as Industrial Palace” from 1926.

The first apparatus that can be considered as intended to imitate mental processes (a mental automata), probably more symbolic than real, are the calculating machines. In the 18th century the concept of “mathematical automaton”, that corresponds to the model designed by Pascal, was that of a system composed of gears and other pieces intended to produce the movement of printed or engraved figures and to performe the rules of arithmetic. A century later, Babbage’s machines, especially the analytical engine, marked an important step forward in the process of automatization, not only of mathematical operations but also of mental tasks. The purpose of his machines, that can be considered as an extension of the human brain, was to avoid human errors in the calculus, and they reflected Babbage’s idea of translating the division and organisation of physical tasks into mental processes (as Gaspard De Prony did in the Enlightenment to produce logarithmic and trigonometric tables for the French Cadastre). Some authors attribute him the intention to automate intelligence but Babbage himself dismissed the idea that his machines were able to think; as Ada Byron stated:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with”.

Ada Augusta Lovelace, “Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq. By L. F. Menabrea, of Turin, with notes upon the Memoir by the Translator”, 1843

Although his machines, and especially the analytical engine, were provided with memory and were capable of taking decisions, it was not human being but industry that Babbage had used as a model. As a matter of fact, at that time also factories were considered as automata, an idea that is well reflected in this quote from Andrew Ure:

Some authors, indeed, have comprehended under the title factory, all extensive establishments wherein a number of people co-operate towards a common purpose of art; and would therefore rank breweries, distilleries, as well as the workshops of carpenters, turners, coopers, &c., under the factory system. But I conceive that this title, in its strictest sense, involves the idea of a vast automaton, composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinated to a self-regulated moving force. If the marshalling of human beings in systematic order for the execution of any technical enterprise were allowed to constitute a factory, this term might embrace every department of civil and military engineering; a latitude of application quite inadmisible.

Andrew Ure, Thre Philosphy of Manufactures, Londres, 1835, pp. 13-14.

For a long time, it was not accepted culturally and socially that machines could be capable of reproducing mental faculties. This mistrust continued well into the XXth century, when the first computers were designed:

It was towards the end of 1946 that the British public first began to hear about computers, which the press would insist on calling electronic brains. In November of that year, Lord Louis Mountbatten used this term to describe the ENIAC in an address he gave to the British Institute of Radio Engineers. Hartree wrote to the Times protesting, but adding that it was true that an electronic calculating machine “can be set up in such a way as to exercise a certain amount of judgement”. He was challenged to explain exactly what this meant by a correspondent who observed that the left hand would seem to be giving back what the right hand had taken away. In a second letter, Hartree defended the use of the word judgement, but in terms so obscure that his readers can have been left little the wiser.

In spite of all protests, the press continued to use the term electronic brain, along with certain variants, for example, mechanical brain and giant brain. This, together with the general use by computers designers of terms –such as memory– based on physiological analogy, made some people jump to the conclusion that the claim was being made that computers were something more than mere machines. The matter surfaced in the press in June 1949, when Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, Proffesor of Neurosurgery at Manchester, delivered the Lister Oration to the Royal College of Surgeons, taking for his title “The mind of Mechanical Man.” Jefferson evidently thought that dubious statements were being made and that he should refute them. His flights of rhetoric about machines not being able to write sonnets and know that they had written them, or feel emotion, were eminently quotable and were a gift to the press. “When we hear it said that wireless valves think”, he said, “we may despair of language.”

Turing was asked for his comments. What he actually said will never be known, but what came through in the Times was that the main preoccupation of the University of Manchester was to find “the degree of intellectual activity of which a machine was capable and to what extent it could think for itself”. This was too much for Dom Illtyd Trethowan of Downside Abbey who wrote to the Times expressing the conviction that all responsible scientist would be quickly to dissociate themselves from this work; he mentioned Butler’s Erewhonians who felt the necessity to guard themselves against the possible hostility of the machines and stated his own belief that men are free persons. In the true traditional style of Times letter writing, he ended by demanding to know how far Turing’s opinions were shared, or might come to be shared, by the rulers of the country.

Maurice Wilkes, Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer, The MIT Press, 1984, pp. 195-196.

Today, the interest in automata is related to the intense debate over artificial intelligence, the limits of machines capable of thinking and making decisions, and the shift in certain human initiatives such as creativy or responsibilities. Some of the machines that are being developed are aimed at solving a specific problems or exectuting specific task, and others seek to imitate human beings, including their mental processes.

For further reading see Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and William R. Newman (eds.) (2007), The artificial and the natural: an evolving polarity, The MIT Press; Víctor Guijarro & Leonor González (2010), La quimera del autómata matemático. Del calculador medieval a la máquina analítica de Babbage, Madrid, Cátedra (especially chapters III and VII); and Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata”, in William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaffer (eds.), The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, Chicago University Press, 1990.


New devices, processes, methods, ideas… reach their real meaning and dimension in the social and cultural context. Effectiveness, industrial, economic and social improvements, and the final utility of a rich variety of proposals depend on how a society perceive them, and on shared fears and expectations about change and future. Some societies together with different groups do not regard innovations as substantial means to transform their worldview. Novelties in this case are just seen as tools with immediate practical applications. Supreme values are instead those that contribute to enhance group cohesion; if something threatens this perspective, it will be dismissed. In ancient Greek culture, innovative tendencies implicit in arts were restrained (not eliminated) by political and moral invocation of prudence. Innovation in this case doesn’t have the same connotations as it has in western cultures, at least since the Renaissance. From this time on, the argumentum ad novitatem (appeal to the new; something is better only by virtue of being new o newer) has been recurrently proclaimed in particular moments to emphasize the superiority of moderns over ancients, to underline in sum the radical opposition between present and past times. Innovation then became a symbol. Moreover, modern mentality is grounded in the rejection of tradition and consequently in the promotion of innovations and technology. The twentieth century has sacralized the concept and has converted it in an essential part of the search for resources to improve citizen conditions, where the state has a crucial responsibility and therefore dedicates part of the budgets to promote particular programs in areas such as health, industry and military forces (or national security). Science is seen in this context as a valuable and even unique source of innovation. But according to George Basalla this restrictive assumption has to be modified in order to accept other origins:

In the twentieth century, however, science has come to play a much larger role in the creation of technological innovations and hence deserves separate treatment. Proponents of scientific research have exaggerated the importance of science by claiming it to be the root of virtually all major technological changes. A more realistic and historically accurate assessment of the influence of science on technological change is that it is one of several, interacting sources of novelty.

The evolution of technology, Cambridge, CUP, 1999, 92.

The same author points out a variety of elements to explain innovations: psychological and intellectual factors (technological dreams, technological visions, impossible machines, popular fantasies, transference of knowledge, imperialism, migration, practical knowledge, environmental influences, and science) and socioeconomic and cultural factors (economic motivations, market demands, workmen shortage, patents, and laboratories of industrial research). To conclude with Basalla’s words:

That the process of innovation involves the interplay of psychological and socioeconomic factors is generally agreed. An overemphasis on the psychological elements leads to a genius theory of invention, one in which the contributions of a few gifted individuals are featured. An excess concentration on the social and economic elements yields a rigidly deterministic explanation that presents an invention as the inevitable product of its times. Because it is so much easier to identify socioeconomic influences than it is to delve into the workings of innovative minds, and because we have yet to produce a theory capable of fully integrating the psychological, the social, and the economic in any realm, a satisfying unified explanation of innovation remains more an ideal than a realty

(Basalla, 1999, 65).


Being one of the central concepts of Western civilization, the progressive perspective regards the present stage in an accumulative historical process as superior to the previous one. Human evolution is thus a tendency that implies in the long run an improvement. What is important in this vision is that the samples of the material culture (the innovations) represent proofs of a continuous course of perfection (ad novitatem argument). The state of technology is then contemplated as an indicator to measure or evaluate the progress of societies and groups. Historically, the idea of progress received the influence of other previous conceptions, from the Christian linear notion of time to the assumption that humans have the capacity to improve themselves by observation, experience and learning, or the human’s willingness to think that domination of nature is a valuable task. Throughout the modern era, these elements suffered a process of secularization, and it was in the eighteenth-century when progress and the advancement of material lifestyle were seen as complementary phenomena. According to Frank E. Manuel & Fritzie P. Manuel, “The Esquisse [written by Condorcet] was the form in which the eighteenth-century idea of progress was generally assimilated by Western thought. Condorcet wrote his manifesto with full awareness of its world revolutionary significance” (Utopian thought in the Western World, 491). The “Ninth Epoch” of Marquis de Condorcet’s Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind [1795] is a tribute to the conquests of science as well as to the applications derived from them; the following fragment is an adequate example of this conception:

We may shew the influence which the progress of mechanics, of astronomy, of optics, and of the art of measuring time, has exercised on the art of constructing, moving, and directing vessels at sea. We may shew how greatly an increase of the number of observers, and a greater degree of accuracy in the astronomical determinations of positions, and in topographical methods, have at last produced an acquaintance with the surface of the globe, of which so little was known at the end of the last century.

How greatly the mechanic arts, properly so called, have given perfection to the processes of art in constructing instruments and machines in the practice of trade, and these last have no less added force to rational mechanism and philosophy. These arts are also greatly indebted to the employment of first movers already known, with less of expense and loss, as well as to the invention of new principles of motion.

We have beheld architecture extend its researches into the science of equilibriums and the theory of fluids, for the means of giving the most commodious and least expensive form to arches, without fear of altering their solidity; and to oppose against the effort of water a resistance computed with greater certainty; to direct the course of that fluid, and to employ it in canals with greater skill and success.

We have beheld the arts dependent on chemistry enriched with new processes; the ancient methods have been simplified, and cleared from useless or noxious substances, and from absurd or imperfect practices introduced from former rude trials; means have been invented to avert those frequently terrible dangers to which workmen were exposed. Thus it is that the application [229] of science has secured to us more of riches and enjoyment, with much less of painful sacrifice or of regret.

In the meantime, chemistry, botany, and natural history, have very much enlightened the economical arts, and the culture of vegetables destined to supply our wants; such as the art of supporting, multiplying, and preserving domestic animals; the bringing their races to perfection, and meliorating their products; the art of preparing and preserving the productions of the earth, or those articles which are of animal product.

Surgery and pharmacy have become almost new arts, from the period when anatomy and chemistry have offered them more enlightened and more certain direction.

The art of medicine, for in its practice it must be considered as an art, is by this means delivered at least of its false theories, its pedantic jargon, its destructive course of practice, and the servile submission to the authority of men, or the doctrine of colleges; it is taught to depend only on experience. The means of this art have become multiplied, and their combination and application better known; and though it may be admitted that in some parts its progress is merely of a negative kind, that is to say, in the destruction of dangerous practices and hurtful prejudices, yet the new methods of studying chemical medicine, and of combining observations, give us reason to expect more real and certain advances.

 [From Online library of liberty,]

Twentieth Century World Wars and totalitarianisms, left and right, marked the decline of the overoptimistic confidence in progress. The idea of a global progress in the terms established in previous centuries, understood as a linear tendency towards higher stages of material and moral improvements, is now regarded as an illusion. A new perspective is then demanded for the determination of social advances (or the passage from “inferior to superior”) focused on small-scale contexts instead of on universal criteria. In sum, as Robert A. Nisbet pointed out in his classical book History of the idea of progress (New Bruswick, Transaction Publishers, 2009, p. 6):

Quite obviously, so sweeping a proposition as the idea of progress as just described cannot be empirically or logically verified. One may say, precisely and verifiably enough, that the art of medicine or the art of war has advanced, given our perfectly objective ways of noting the means toward the long-held end or purpose in each art: saving or healing life; destroying one’s enemies as effectively and lastingly as possible. Plainly, penicillin is, and can be proved to be, superior to old-fashioned remedies –blood-letting or leeching, for example. And modern artillery is superior to cross-bows and boiling pitch.

Matters become more complicated, though, even within either of these specialized, technical domains, when we ask what the overall effects are –environmental, social, moral, demographic, spiritual, and so forth- of even the kind of progress we see in the art of medicine. One need only think of the present burgeoning, fast-spreading area of thought known as medical ethics, including the right to die with dignity amid all the technological achievements by which the dying can be held indefinitely in that suspended state, to be reminded of the extent to which even the oldest of ethical issues can become activated by technological success in medicine.


It is one of the main topics in cultural understanding of technology. In this perspective, technology is represented as the key driver or governing force of the main social changes and values. One of the first formulations of this view of social development came from the German philosopher Karl Marx (who considered transitions to the feudal system or to the capitalist system as determined by particular technologies such as the hand-mill or the steam-mill). His conception was embedded in his philosophical premises, in those that assume that all major transformations in the social superstructure and in the cultural practices depend on the material conditions. Technological determinism assumes that all patterns of social existence are conditioned by technical factors. Nevertheless other versions of this theory reject this vision of explaining social change and development and stress a distinction between two approaches: technology as a necessary and sufficient condition, and technology as a necessary but not sufficient condition (soft determinism). Technology then supplies opportunities or occasions to a social transition but it would be a matter of discussion that material factors were the unique cause of the transformations alluded to. In the following lines we reproduce a fragment of Karl Kautsky’s paper “Nature and Society” (December, 1929), where the autor, a revisionist of Marxist orthodox interpretations, expresses the inadequacy of a strict technological deterministic position.

Technology by itself, however, does not suffice to explain the entire working of society. One must not understand what I just said to mean that the same mode of production and the same form of society always and under all circumstances correspond necessarily to a certain technology […] I specially emphasize the difference between technology and the economy and that different economic formations can be linked to the same technology […] A large-scale enterprise can assume different economic forms that are independent of its technology: it can be the enterprise of an individual capitalist or of a corporation or of the state or of a workers’ cooperative. How a particular technical apparatus is applied at any one time depends not only on its technical characteristics but also on the nature of the society in which it appears […]

A knowledge of a particular technology is not sufficient for our understanding of a particular form of society. But it is always technical innovations that provide the impetus for a movement of the society. What is new in society is in the last analysis always traceable to a new technology that produces new economic conditions and social relations. In society and its economy there is no moving force through which it could by itself continue to develop without the impetus of technical innovations […]

[“Natur und Gesellschaft”, Die Gesellschaft, (Berlin), vol. 6/2, No.12 (December 1929), pp.481-505, publ.: International Journal of Comparative Sociology XXX, 1-2 (1989)]

The acceptance of a strict technological determinism implies that technology is out of human control; that progress is inevitable; that every culture follows the same developmental path, and that technology is neutral. Melvin Kranzberg discusses the latter assumption in the statement presented as his first law of technology: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”, which condenses the idea that technology has numerous social, moral, ecological consequences that go beyond its most immediate scope and applications. Present times provide us examples of alternative versions of technological determinism. Just to mention one case, this mentality is assumed in the projects intended to improve third world socio-economic status through the deployment of technologies that facilitates free access to information (internet).


The concept refers to the process of assimilation by one culture of the material practices of another group, or to how a culture has to reshape in order to accommodate technological practices together with its own values (order, causal sequence, functionality, efficiency, uniformity, utility, motion, energy, speed…). A quotation from a representative example of a scholarly work will shed light on the use of this perspective to understand the meaning of technology in particular social contexts. The text is focused on the USA culture from the second quarter of the XVIIIth through the XIXth Century. In the preface, the author John F. Kasson offers a general account of what it is assumed to explain the place of technology in a cultural framework (Civilizing the Machine. Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 (Nueva York, Hill and Wang, 1999, orig. 1976)):

The problem upon which this study concentrates –addressed on various levels from the Revolution throughout the nineteenth century- is the meaning of technology for a republican civilization. The precise terms of America’s republican ideology were never firmly fixed. Quite the contrary, in its very fluidity, republicanism formed the subject for intense debate from the moment of the Revolution onward, ranging between conservative warnings of an excess of democracy and egalitarian complaints of its inadequate fulfillment. The rapid development of machine technology and the process of industrialization as a whole altered the context of this discussion and fundamentally tested the country’s republican commitment on a number of levels. As Americans reflected upon the proper place of technology in a republic, they were compelled to articulate the kind of civilization they desired for the nation. They had to re-examine their conceptions of the entire social order and determine how best to maintain social cohesion and purity. Concern for social consequences of industrialization sparked renewed consideration of the degree of social opportunity and the meaning of egalitarian principles in a technological society. Technology raised equally vital questions for the imaginative and cultural life of the nation. New machinery and modes of communication enormously expanded the range of human perceptions, but they also threatened to dull the individual conscience and creative spirit. As technology dramatically reshaped the physical environment, it also transformed American’s very notions of beauty and raised critical issues of the proper art form for a republic. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, these and related concern swelled to a climax as the future of republicanism in a technological age appeared hedged at once by millennial hopes and bitter doubts.

Processes of adaptation, integration and assimilation of cultures, and how they affect individuals and practices, are classic topics examined in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. These studies provided us with valuable models, like the one purposed by the psychologist John W. Berry (reproduced below as a version of the graphs included in his paper “Acculturation: living successfully in two cultures”, International journal of Intercultural Relations, 29, 2005, 697-712), which might be of great utility for the understanding of the meaning conferred to technology by a minority or a dominant group. Also related to this concept are the terms westernization and cultural assimilation.Berry's acculturation model

Transmission of knowledge

Transmission of knowledge refers to any method, explicit or implicit, used to transmit knowledge related to technology. According to this, we can differentiate between formal and informal transmission of knowledge. In the first group, the most common process is education. In the second one, the possibilities are wide open, and include exhibitions, museums, news and references in newspapers and magazines, images, art and symbolic representations, etc.

A very important aspect in both of them is tacit knowledge, which can only be acquired through experience, when using technological objects. According to Herschbach, “A large part of tacit knowledge cannot be transmitted through written or oral form. It is personal knowledge, it is subjective knowledge, and it is immediate and specific knowledge. Tacit knowledge is primarily learned by working side by side with the experienced technician or craftsman”.

Finally, when taking into account the process of transferring technologies it’s also important to pay attention to the fact that we also transfer cultural values, and that “there is no such a thing as an all-purpose context-free tool”. As stated by Díaz-Canepa,

“Currently, there are two main approaches in the field. Some researchers favor a normative strategy that emphasizes technical training and the transfer of “simple” technologies, whereas others favor a constructive strategy that evaluates the resources and local dynamics of the receiving country. Those endorsing the first approach talk in terms of the adaptation of technology, emphasizing the necessary adjustment of technologies to the user’s characteristics […]. Those favoring the second approach speak of the appropriation of technology, and point to the active character that users assume while incorporating technology” […] “Successful appropriation, then, occurs when imported elements can be integrated to some degree with a preexisting work situation and/or to the users’ previous schemata. The appropriation process can accordingly be understood as one modality in which people “attempt to integrate the new tool’s utilization within the set of schemata previously constructed”. […] “Whereas adaptation is a process driven by the provider of the new technology, appropriation is based on the ends, mental representations, competencies, and contexts that exist in the receiver’s work situation. The locus of control in adaptation is internal and socialized. Adaptation emphasizes the role of memorization in the transfer of knowledge; appropriation calls for the reelaboration of situated learning”.

For further reading see: Dennis R. Herschbach (“Technology as Knowledge: Implications for Instruction”, Journal of Technology Education, vol. 7, n.º 1, Fall 1995, pp. 31-42) and Carlos Díaz-Canepa (“Transferring Technologies to Developing Countries: A Cognitive and Cultural Approach”, in Robert J. Sternberg and David D. Preiss, Intelligence and Technology: The impact of tools on the Nature and Development of Human Abilities, Mahwah (New Jersey), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005).

Diagrammatic definitions of ‘technology’ and ‘technology practice’, by A. Pacey

Esquema Pacey con pie

The triple distinction: As a human action, the technology is the result of the interactions between three factors: machinery-mechanical systems (techniques in general, not necessary material, it could be a sequence of logical sentences or commands; making sure that it works), skills (tacit and explicit knowledge and competences of individuals) and cultural meanings. The gradual combination of these dimensions creates a particular meaning of technology, which in turn derives from its consideration as a social practice integrated in a community. History of technology is confined many times to the first factor, and it is regarded in this sense as a collection of technical (practical and useful) solutions willingly offered to a receptive and expectant public.