Friday, October 12, 2018

Moxon’s Master

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

Portrait de joueurs d'échecs (Portrait of Chess Players), 1911, oil on canvas by French artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp (1887−1968). Courtesy of WikiArt.
In 1770, at the court of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled the Turk, the world’s first chess-playing automaton. Encased in an elaborate cabinet with visible gears and cogs, the machine was able to play chess against a human opponent—and more often than not it won. On top of the cabinet, a life-sized costumed mannequin with turbaned head and robe-cloaked torso straddled one side—thus, the name. After its debut in the empress’s court, the machine’s fame spread throughout Europe and, a decade later, von Kempelen took it on tour. Among the challengers in Paris was a bemused Benjamin Franklin, who lost his match.

Before each demonstration, von Kempelen would open various doors and compartments so that spectators could inspect the machine’s elaborate inner workings. Although many observers were skeptical, no one could adequately explain how it worked. The most common theories were that von Kempelen was somehow able to operate the machinery remotely or that a child, dwarf, or amputee was hidden away in a secret compartment.

When its creator died in 1804, the machine and its secrets were sold to Johann Mälzel, who continued the tour throughout Europe, across the Channel to England, and eventually to America. One young man who was impressed but skeptical was Englishman Charles Babbage, who was sure the machine was a hoax but began to wonder if such a thing were really possible. Soon after his own games against the Turk (he lost both), Babbage published the first designs for his Difference Engine—the world’s first automatic computing machine. His autobiography, which appeared in 1864, reaffirmed his belief in the inevitable development of game-playing machinery, and late in life he included in his journals schemata for a tic-tac-toe automaton.

Another luminary fascinated by the Turk was Edgar Allan Poe, who witnessed a demonstration in Richmond, Virginia, in 1835. Poe became obsessed with the machine but was convinced the whole thing was a hoax. In a lengthy essay, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” he marshaled the evidence against it. Yet many of Poe’s speculations were wrong (he subscribed to the tiny-human hypothesis to explain the trick), and some of his assumptions exposed an overconfidence in the invincibility of logic-based technologies. “The Automaton does not invariably win the game,” he argued. “Were the machine a pure machine this would not be the case—it would always win.”

By the middle of the century, after fascination with the machine was finally exhausted, the Turk was, of course, unveiled as a hoax that had fooled audiences for nearly eighty years. Most conjectures had been unnecessarily complicated, since the secret proved to be remarkably simple. Inside the cabinet was an adult human chess master of average height and weight. The Museum of Hoaxes explains: “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.” Most of the other “workings” inside the machine served little purpose other than misdirection or the emission of noises that early-industrial-age audiences would expect such a machine to make.

All of the preceding serves as a preamble to this week’s selection. When Ambrose Bierce sat down to write “Moxon’s Master” at the very end of the nineteenth century, the word “robot” (coined by playwright K. Čapek) was still two decades in the future—yet the idea of chess-playing automata had over 130 years of history and imagination behind it. Yet Bierce takes the idea of a humanoid robot one step further: what if such a contraption could actually think? S. T. Joshi claims that the story “must be one of the earliest tales genuinely to deal with the question of artificial intelligence.” “Bierce’s originality,” write the editors of the anthology War with the Robots, “lies not in writing a story about a chess-playing machine but in his realization of the radical philosophical implications of inventing a machine with intelligence.” As the novelist Michael Peck notes in a recent essay, “It was only a short hop from there to fathom a techverse where that same logic could suddenly turn sinister. Ambrose Bierce was one of the first to make this skepticism explicit.”

Notes: Herbert Spencer’s definition of “Life,” quoted on page 255, is from The Principles of Biology (1864–67). A few sentences later, Bierce alludes to British philosopher John Stuart Mill and his discussion of cause and effect in A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843). On page 257, the quote “The endless variety and excitement of philosophic thought” is from The History of Philosophy from Thales to Comte (1867) by British historian and critic George Henry Lewes (1817–1878).

Special note (spoiler alert!): During the 1980s and ’90s, in the pages of Science Fiction Studies and other journals, a number of scholars proposed a series of alternative and conflicting interpretations of Bierce’s story, all of them basically proposing that there was never a real robot in Moxon’s lab. Instead, the perpetrator of the crime was human, either a jealous mistress or Moxon’s assistant Haley, who might have been Moxon’s lover. The interpretations have not gained much traction in the years since; at most, the conversation at the very end of the story suggests that Haley’s role in the story, especially its climactic fiery cataclysm, is intentionally ambiguous. Famed science fiction guru Damon Knight offered perhaps the most appropriate response when he praised Bierce's “ingenuity in creating puzzles for unborn scholars,” and he lampooned the combating academics by presenting his own “solution” to the supposed mystery: “A close reading makes it clear that the culprit is Moxon's brother's dentist. Notice that Bierce never mentions the brother: this in itself is sinister. The brother must have had a dentist, and yet the dentist is never mentioned either. Dentists of that period were known to use ether and chloroform, both of which are inflammable. The case is open and shut.”

*   *   *
“Are you serious?—do you really believe that a machine thinks?” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.