Mechanical Lions in English Woods

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Mar 13, 1948

Mechanical Lions in English Woods

News came from the West Country that a distinguished man of science had invented a mechanical tortoise which shows more intelligence—but that is not saying much—than a living tortoise.

The scientist, having invented a mechanical tortoise, now maintains that it will be equally possible to invent a mechanical man who will answer the bell, fetch you your breakfast and apparently do most of the things that you pay other people for doing—in short, a very efficient and rather intelligent robot.

He holds that this extremely capable, semi-human creature will be produced in great numbers as soon as there is a sufficient demand for it—or should one say “him?”

Certainly, science can achieve wonders. I remember as a child being amazed when I first saw a doll that could close and open its eyes and even be persuaded to say “Mamma” or “Papa.”

Among Christmas presents I can recall a mechanical dog that came out of a kennel and barked, a mechanical goat that walked across the floor, a mechanical clown that juggled with rings, and a mechanical 18th century lady who sat on a musical box and put a lorgnette to her eyes as she gazed around her.

Man is certainly clever, but I wonder whether he will ever be able to invent a mechanical hen that will lay a mechanical egg fit to eat, or a mechanical cow that will produce mechanical milk fit to drink. It should be easy enough to invent a mechanical herring, but what would it taste like as a kipper?

And as soon as man has discovered the secret of inventing fairly intelligent mechanical animals he is unlikely to be content with producing only the useful and harmless variety. His curiosity and love of experiment will undoubtedly tempt him to the invention of mechanical wild beasts and our descendants may one day find themselves climbing trees to escape from mechanical lions in English woods or confronted by mechanical boa-constrictors in English lanes.

We have already seen how dangerous the mechanical horse known as the motor engine can be, but a mechanical horse is harmlessness itself compared with what a mechanical tiger or python would be.

As for a mechanical man, he seems desirable enough when one thinks that one would only have to press a bell to bring him to one’s bedside in the morning with a tray laden with tea, toast, butter and marmalade, and, perhaps, two eggs and bacon.

The trouble is, however, that the scientists would not remain satisfied with having invented a mechanical man who was nothing but an obedient slave.

Having given him the rudiments of intelligence, they would gradually increase his intelligence till he began to think for himself and to consider himself the equal of human beings. There would then be a revolutionary uprising of the robots as depicted in the play “R.U.R.”

And consider the trouble we should have with the mechanical man while he was still a new invention. New inventions are peculiarly liable to break-downs, as those who were alive in the early days of the motorcar know.

Hence I am sure that mechanical man would at first make many mistakes. As he came upstairs with breakfast one would hear a crash as he and the tray tumbled backwards down the stairs together. At dinner a defect in his mechanism would lead to his spilling the soup down the shirt front of a guest.

In fact, he would be as much of a nuisance as half a dozen motorcars, and one would find oneself spending half one’s income in having him repaired or in repairing the damage he had done.

Man as he is is still an unsatisfactory creature, though he is many thousands—or is it millions?—of years old. But, bad as man is, I believe that it will take even more millions of years for the scientists to produce a mechanical imitation of him that is half as good.

I can imagine a mechanical man writing poetry like a good deal of modern poetry, or painting pictures like a good many modern pictures. But the more things he would do the less I should like him.

It is bad enough to have monkeys looking so like oneself and one’s neighbors. But to live in the house with a machine that looked like a human being would be a nightmare.

 Quotes by ROBERT LYND


One comment

  1. Artificial intelligence is not a topic of the far future. Advances in science have allowed us to dream larger…

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