My kids will make a robot out of anything. Give ’em two toilet paper tubes and a cereal box and they’ll turn it into an Atlas mech with twin 20-ton cannon and a laser-guided missile battery courtesy of a bottle cap. The older one now is just discovering the joy of actual moving parts, courtesy of some simple joints and scavenged toy parts. But my kids are nothing new.

Ever since Ancient Greece, people have been fascinated by automata; self-moving machines that mimic the movements of humans or animals. The ancient Greeks used automata as religious icons, toys, and teaching tools. While the charm of a moving toy is a tempting lure to anyone younger than ten (and indeed, a great deal of us older than ten), the religious significance of a self-moving mechanism lies not in inherent “aww,” but its greater cousin, awe. A pair of massive brass temple doors opening with the touch of a priestly finger would have inspired marvel and awe in connection with something greater.

Even ancient kings fell under the spell of the lure of a dream of an army of self-propelled robotic soldiers, able to execute their every command without the need for tons of food, supplies, pay, or the need for rest.

Medieval inventors began to dream not of armies of automatic men, marching into loss-free battle, but of armies of automatic servants, devising elaborate ways to automate the performances of traditional servants by replacing them with robotic versions of themselves. In some cases, these early automatic servants provided the inspiration–and some of the spare parts–to develop modern machinery and equipment that now replaces the duties of those servants. An ancient body servant’s ball-float linkage actuator, for example, can still be found in every modern home (hint, take the back off the toilet), serving a very similar purpose!

These early automata served as more than simple time and labor saving devices. The nature of their design–to imitate the movements of animals and people–speaks to more than the simple desire to reduce or replace the human effort from tasks. It speaks to the human spirit’s need for understanding our own inner workings. To understand and comprehend that which makes us “go.” For a time, we attempted to conceptualize ourselves via clockworks–reducing ourselves to smaller and smaller gears and tension-wound springs.

Understanding ourselves as machines had the side effect of identifying that which in ourselves is not machinery, no matter how organic. Modern robots have decision-making capabilities that approach the amazing, thanks to impressive computing power and the speed of ones and zeroes and electrons. They can even play Jeopardy. But they still can’t automate the indefinable part of us that makes us human.

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