Dear Automaton


In the introduction to his book The Prometheus Opponent: Life of Illustrious Automata, Patrick J. Gyger argues that, during the 17th and 18th century, philosophy and technology joined together with a harmony unparalleled in history. The idea that God was synonymous with the Great Watchmaker and that the human body was nothing other than the most perfect watch became popular. Man, in the end, would be an organic machine, a machine with spirit, a ghost that inhabits a skin casing. We are rare and sensitive technology that thinks, invents, and breathes.


It was in this context of the arts imbricated with the sciences that, in 1738, Jacques de Vaucanson’s flutist appeared: an automaton that played various tunes with a flute, like a professional musician. A fascinating system of pulleys, valves, and weights reproduced the mechanism of lungs, larynx, lips, tongue, and fingers, which made it capable of «making music.» A year later, Vaucanson would again fascinate the world with a second automaton: a gilded copper duck capable of drinking, eating, squawking, and splashing as would a live one. Vaucanson’s duck could even be given a grain of corn, which it thanked with a frenetic flutter, swallowed, and after a few turns ejected, processed and turned into fecal matter through a hole located under its tail. By the way, Vaucanson cheated and never explained it—years later, it would be discovered that the grain of corn actually fell into a secret compartment that activated another compartment where the supposed duck feces were released. But who can doubt it: Every magical act hides an unspeakable trick.


Other famous automata of those times in which alchemy was fortunately confused with mechanics, were Von Kelpem’s chess player (able to win against famous players of 1769) and Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz’s android writer, which—among other phrases—was able to write «I think, therefore I am». And though this was in the 1770s, the robot continues to write today in a museum in Switzerland. Who knows if in a few years it might end up winning the Nobel Prize.


And although these automata can fascinate, surprise and even make us feel frank sympathy, hardly anyone in this vast world will surrender—as Pygmalion did before his beautiful statue—to the irresistible charms of the flutist, or fall in love with the defecating duck, the implacable chess player, or the Cartesian writer in the Swiss museum. Brian W. Aldiss, author of Supertoys Last All Summer Long (a work that would be turned into the screenplay of Artificial Intelligence by Stanley Kubrick, brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg), argued that at some point humans would be able to create a perfect machine with impeccable human appearance, programmed to love us unconditionally and always find us fascinating. But then, Aldiss asked himself the following question: Will we be able to love them back with the same intensity with which they love us? He sums this issue up in Supertoys and leaves it floating heavily in the air with a loose, isolated phrase, just after introducing us to a mother playing with her son in the very first paragraph:


«That woman had tried to love the child.»


This muffled stoning, this subtle hammering is enough to make us understand that the child may be adorable, cheerful, obedient, witty, and affectionate, profoundly in love with his mother, an ideal son… But he is insufficient because he is artificial, and the mother is incapable of reciprocating his feelings. She has tried, but it doesn’t happen. She simply can’t manage it.


So we are modern Prometheuses, watches hoping to become masterful watchmakers; we seek perfection in our creatures but are unable to love them. However, we are perfectly capable of hating, fearing, and being disturbed by them.


Mary Shelley argued about her Frankenstein—to explain the horror and fascination it stirred—that «it speaks to the mysterious fears of our nature.» The creature is like a mirror: it is in its fear where we are reflected. It is for the same reason that HAL 9000, the panicked computer in 2001: Space Odyssey, also causes us such discomfort: we find a fearful machine to be abominable. We dislike panic, so how could we then bear it, or even understand it, in inanimate objects?


Philip K. Dick, who by the way would end his days convinced of not being human and asserting «I am alive and you are all dead,» argued that the key to unraveling the human condition was not only in the fear of death and anxiety for prolonging existence, but also (and above all) in the yearning for transcendence. We might summarize this in «I confess that I have lived, and through that testimony of life I will leave my legacy in others for when I am no longer.» It matters little whether that longing is harbored inside of a robot, a virtual being, a replicant (an android made of genetic or organic material), or a flesh-and-blood person. It is the ghost that lives inside and would want to live in others after its death, what would really define the human essence. That is why Roy, the famous replicant in Blade Runner (an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), gives us a lesson on humanity just before surrendering to death at the end of the film: he has seen and experienced wonderful things that no human being could even imagine, but «all [those moments] will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.»


Before dying, the replicant becomes aware that machines have no right to leave memories behind; they do not live on through their affections, but simply go off or melt. And yet he has the experience of life, a wonderful history to bequeath, knowing well that this material bears witness to his existence. Roy proves to be more human than all the humans in the story. He also rubs in on us that he is alive while the others are dead.


So we already know that there are machines in whose circuits flows fear, robots that desire more life—and one filled with affection—, as well as artificial creatures that yearn for transcendence. But is that enough to get us to love them? Picasso may hold the element missing from the formula, the catalyst that would detonate the reaction: «Art is the lie that makes life bearable.» Therefore, we would need the machine to learn to invent, to imagine, to lie, to indulge in the play of fiction, to make art.


In Ricardo Piglia’s La ciudad ausente [The Absent City], there is a machine that invents stories. The spirit of Elena, the late wife of Macedonio Fernández, inhabits this machine-woman. They have her isolated in the basement of a museum (yes, like the Cartesian automaton) and the paranoid State is increasingly distressed by her fabrications as they begin to be confused with real facts. The machine does not stop fabricating, but the fictions have certain impacts on real life. The control that the State wants to exert starts to weaken, the machine is making it crack; as Piglia himself says: «We cannot forget that the paranoid have enemies too.»


There is a graphic novel by Enki Bilal, La Femme Piège [The Woman Trap], where something similar takes place: a beautiful woman with blue hair and tears, Jill Bioskop, locks herself up in a hotel bathroom and soaks in the tub as she tells (and mourns) her experiences to a transcription machine. And in her story, like a torn newspaper, she tells it a little bit about everything: climate, politics, fear, the absence of love, sadness, and uncertainty. Jill empties herself, liquefies herself; becomes a substance to nourish her own story in a beautiful metaphor of the writing process. The only truth that exists is that of the story that is being told; the surrounding world loses consistency and is erased. And the machine receives all of this and turns it into news: news that travel from the future and become truths, facts that modify the past and the present. Jill does not know it, but her machine is turning fiction into truth. It is making art from art.


On the other hand, in The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selsznick (adapted to the screen by Martin Scorsese), we find that, before his death, filmmaker Georges Méliès left one final work we knew nothing about. It is not another film where we travel to the moon or the ocean, but that he himself became an automaton. If transcendence lies in being remembered, well, this machine collects the entire memory of Méliès, all his writings and images. It even goes beyond the cinema that he left us: it is an automaton capable of writing fantastic stories and drawing Méliès’s dream images.


What do these three machines have in common? That their creators emptied themselves in them. The fire of modern Prometheuses is nothing else than the soul of the creator transferred to the machine: I live through the artificial; I dwell in my creation, now I am the machine.


At this point, let us return to the issue of loveable machines: that machine would be a work of art that also enjoys artistic abilities, skilled to invent its own lies, which in the end are the same. Let’s take into account that art, artifact, artifice and artificial share the same root: made by humans, not only the artists but also the artisans. So, yes, we go back to the beginning: men are both watches and watchmakers. A machine susceptible of being loved then becomes aware of itself and begins to lie, to falsify, to invent and to construct. First of all, an identity is constructed; Wittgenstein said that the story that crystallizes in our memory is what we call identity, so, in the end, we are all an invention, a tale, the need to turn the pace of this life into a narrative. We are the product of imagination as it tries to order existence into a moderately structured story. We should thus be able to love a machine that is a sort of artificial Sherezade, someone that tells us stories and a fabulous account of itself. And who can say to us, like the character of Lucía (none other than Paz Vega, in all her splendor) in Julio Medem’s film Lucía y el sexo: «and that with time and cohabitation, you might also fall in love with me.»


That our cybernetic Sherezade might spout that on us and that we notice in the back of her eyes—as a sign of anxiety and desire—a little red blinking light… and that we might not mind, not even a bit, because we so wish to spend the night with her, and then (at least) another thousand nights.



*About the Author:

José Urriola (Caracas, 1971) holds a degree in Mass Communications from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. He has been a producer, scriptwriter and audiovisual director. He is the author of the comic book Chupetes de Luna (Thule 2012), the novels Experimento a un perfecto extraño (Sudaquia 2012) and Santiago se va (Libros del Fuego 2015), and the book of short stories Cuentos a patadas (Ekaré 2014).